This story was corrected on Jan. 31, 2013. An explanation follows the story.
A proposal by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) to repeal the death penalty in Maryland has drawn sharp criticism from Frederick County State’s Attorney Charlie Smith (R) and sparked debate over the need for the law.
Smith said he was vehemently opposed to removing the death penalty from the books, charging that O’Malley’s reason for the proposal was purely political.
“It’s reserved for the worst of the worst, but also the worst first-degree murders with the best evidence you could have,” the county prosecutor said.
“You’re virtually assured now that it’s going to be a very heinous murder with excellent evidence to even get it. There’s really no reason to abolish the death penalty other than political reasons.”
Takirra Winfield, spokeswoman for O’Malley, said in an email that O’Malley had been attempting to repeal the death penalty since 2009 because it doesn’t work as a deterrent and is costly — and that any assertion that it was politically motivated is incorrect.
“The belief held by a few that the governor is doing this for reasons other than because he believes it is the right thing to do for our state to move forward is just wrong,” she wrote
In a speech on Jan. 15, O’Malley said the death penalty doesn’t prevent crimes, routinely puts innocent people to death — one innocent person for every 8.7 people sentenced, according to the 2008 Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment report — and is too expensive because cases are appealed and take a long time to process.
Bills have been filed in both the House and Senate, with hearings at 1 p.m. on Feb. 14.
A telephone poll conducted Jan. 15-20 by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies Inc. of Arnold found that 49 percent of Maryland residents are in favor of the death penalty, while 44 percent are opposed, with 7 percent undecided.
However, 61 percent of Maryland residents prefer life imprisonment as an alternative, while 33 percent favor the death penalty, according to the poll published on the company’s website.
The company polled 801 Maryland residents registered voters who vote regularly. The margin of error was plus or minus 3 1/2 percent.
Eleven percent of respondents were from Western Maryland, which included Allegany, Carroll, Frederick, Garrett and Washington counties. The poll did not break down the responses by region.
Five states have abandoned the practice since 2004, including Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico and New York, according to a news release from the Maryland chapter of the NAACP.
Maryland has not executed a prisoner since 2005 according to the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
Smith is chairman of Maryland State’s Attorney’s Association legislative committee, which advises the General Assembly on law-enforcement issues.
The panel doesn’t take a position on the death penalty, but individual prosecutors can comment, said Smith, who was re-elected to a four-year term as county prosecutor in 2010.
Smith — who has prosecuted three death penalty cases in Frederick County, the most recent in 2008 — said that the current state law is already strict enough to prevent abuse. In the most recent case, the defendant received life without parole instead of the death penalty.
The only crime eligible for the death penalty is first-degree murder, but the state also requires aggravating circumstances, Smith said.
Some of the aggravating circumstances that can make a murder case eligible for the death penalty are multiple murders, killing a police officer, contract killings and cases of combined rape and murder, he said.
He said the law requires a heightened level of evidence, including DNA or a videotaped confession, as well as those specific aggravating circumstances to even consider prosecuting a death penalty case.
“It’s something that is extremely scrutinized throughout the process,” Smith said. “The jurors are very much scrutinized as part of selection. It’s something that should be sought under certain circumstances — when the families are onboard, we’ve filed for and sought the death penalty. We take that very seriously. It’s not something you throw around lightly.”
Smith said he felt O’Malley’s proposal to remove the penalty was done to gain political favor.
“It’s unfortunate that it’s being made a political issue for someone who’s looking to grab the next rung on the political ladder,” Smith said, referring to what he believed is O’Malley’s interest in higher elected office after his second term as governor ends.
“In my opinion, that’s exactly what’s happening with O’Malley — he’s looking to grab the next rung on that political ladder. He just needs to leave it alone,” he said.
Not surprisingly, reaction from some members of the Frederick County eight-member legislative delegation also falls along party lines.
Del. Kelly Schulz (R-Dist. 4A) said the state is currently dealing with many important issues, and she doesn’t understand why O’Malley would focus on the death penalty, considering he has not authorized any executions in his six years as governor.
The death penalty has been on hold since 2006 after the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the state could not execute prisoners via lethal injection because the change to that method of execution was not conducted using the process required by the state’s Administrative Procedures Act.
Schulz said she would oppose a bill to end the death penalty.
“It’s just a very personal belief for me,” she said. “If somebody is going to do the most heinous crimes and kill ... children in an elementary school, if they survive that, they should go to court, have their day in court and be duly punished.”
Del. Patrick Hogan (R-Dist. 3A) said he would also not be in favor of repealing the death penalty
“I think there are certain crimes that warrant the death penalty,” he said. “For instance, I think if you kill 20 first-graders, a penalty of death is actually lenient, in my opinion. And on top of that, I think Maryland has some fairly strict evidentiary proof. ... We have a strong wall there.”
On the other side, Sen. Ron Young (D-Dist. 3) said he would support a repeal of the death penalty, although he isn’t unhappy with the law as it currently stands.
He said his research into the subject with prisons in the state lead him to believe life imprisonment is a better punishment.
“It’s a safe, humane, less expensive way to deal with it,” he said. “It takes the state out of the killing role.”
Del. Galen Clagett (D-Dist. 3A), the vice chairman of the county delegation, is also in favor of repealing the death penalty, although he said he had mixed feelings about its use.
“When you look at it from a fiscal point of view, it makes sense to keep them forever,” Clagett said. “I think I’d rather be euthanized than serve life in prison. I understand both sides of it. It just may be time to get rid of it, and stop playing around with it. If we’re not going to use it, get rid of it, and just be certain terrible crimes are life with without parole.”
Area residents approached in Frederick on Tuesday also reflect the strong opinions on both sides.
Kevin Bradley, 21, of Frederick said that he was in favor of repealing the death penalty.
“I’ve never really been behind the concept of eye for an eye,” he said. “I feel like it’s an old-time concept. A lot of other countries have gotten away from it. Maybe it’s time we do, too.”
Fellow Frederick resident Shawn Sandi, 42, had similar feelings.
“The death penalty doesn’t work,” Sandi said. “You have something that’s a permanent end to a crime, yet there’s still murders, even in states like Texas with higher death penalty rates. ... You need different conditions in prison, or better rehabilitation.”
But Iryna Henne, 24, of Frederick thought the state should keep the death penalty on the books.
“There are some crimes that deserve it,” she said. “I don’t see keeping somebody in prison with taxpayer money for committing those crimes. I don’t think that’s good spending of taxpayer money.”
Correction: The original version of this story had an incorrect spelling for Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies Inc.