Religious leaders and others opposed to capital punishment made their annual case this week that the death penalty in Maryland should be eliminated on moral, legal and financial grounds.
“Name another issue that unites the bishops of the Catholic Church, the bishops of the Episcopal Church, the bishops of the Methodist Church …leaders of the Muslim and Jewish communities,” Bishop Eugene Sutton of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland told members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Wednesday.
Moral considerations link the religious leaders in their opposition to capital punishment, Sutton said, before a number of other religious leaders testified in support of a bill to repeal the death penalty and to use the cost savings to fund programs to benefit victims.
How does the killing of citizens lead to a “civil, just” society? Sutton asked. “How do we stop the violence? I am here to tell you we cannot kill our way out of this situation.”
Death penalty opponent David Smith of Hagerstown compared applying capital punishment to the actions of North Korea and “Saddam Hussein’s Iraq,” adding, “I think we can do better.”
But Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger, the lone opponent to testify against the bill, said prosecutors want to keep the death penalty as an option.
Some crimes are so heinous that they deserve the death penalty, he said. Five people have been executed in the state since 1994.
The state passed a measure in 2009 that severely limited which cases were eligible for the death penalty — those where DNA evidence tied the perpetrator to the crime, or where the killer had given a videotaped confession or where the crime was captured on camera and the suspect was clearly visible, Shellenberger noted.
Del. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Dist. 11) of Owings Mills said the fact that a supporter as well as several opponents criticized the recent restrictions shows that legislators got the revisions right.
“That suggests to me that we have a pretty good compromise,” Zirkin said.
The bill would eliminate the death penalty, making the most heinous crimes punishable by life in prison. The money saved from repealing the death penalty would go to aid survivors of homicide victims.
By not having to litigate capital cases, the state would save $1.3 million in fiscal 2013, according to an estimate from the Department of Legislative Services.
The public defender’s office, which handles death penalty cases, would be assigned to other work, while the savings to the Division of Correction were considered negligible because three of the five inmates currently on death row in the state have been incarcerated for more than 26 years, according to the legislative report.
That led to a question from Sen. Christopher B. Shank (R-Dist. 2) of Hagerstown as to how the state would save money to increase funding for victims.
Katy O’Donnell, the chief attorney for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender’s death penalty case unit, said she did not know the answer, but would have to report back to him.
Similar bills to repeal the death penalty were filed in 2001 and from 2003 to 2006 without success.
The state’s last execution occurred Dec. 5, 2005, when Wesley Eugene Baker was executed for the murder of Jane Tyson in Catonsville.