Thursday, April 23, 2009

MCASE debates the Death Penalty

One of the main reasons Maryland Citizens Against State Executions hopes to repeal the death penalty is the fear that a death row inmate might actually be innocent, said MCASE Executive Director Jane Henderson.

"It's not reversible," said Henderson. "You can let someone out of jail if they're wrongfully convicted and spent 20 years in jail; you can't bring them back to life if you've executed them."

Despite the efforts of Gov. Martin O'Malley and MCASE, a repeal bill died in the General Assembly this year. MCASE, a non-profit organization, believes that the bills failure had nothing to do with public opinion but with leadership in Annapolis.

"We had a narrow margin and a Senate president who was working completely against us," said Henderson. "And frankly didn't like the bill that came out - he wanted the bill to get recommitted back to committee and be dead for the year."

The bill would not have died if it would have had enough legislature support and until they have a larger margin, the leadership's motives will prevail, said Henderson.

"Maybe one of the lessons from this is that when you're working on hard issues in the legislature, you have to either have the leadership or enough of a margin that you can override the leadership," she said.

Among several reasons why she is against the death penalty, Henderson says that capital punishment gives the government an opportunity to abuse power.

"My personal position against the death penalty is that, you give the state a power to kill, it's ultimately going to be abused," explained Henderson.

Though, she notes, the possibility of an inmate's innocence is a prevalent factor in her opposition.

"I think it's important to note that we often don't know until the very last minute in the cases where people have been exonerated," said Henderson.

Although there are only five inmates currently on death row, Henderson said that the death penalty is dealt out unevenly and there is not a certain formula in determining who is sentenced to death and who is sentenced to life without parole.

"Everyone convicted of murder gets sentenced in some way... we pick a handful of cases in which we're going to invest immense resources with the goal of ultimately seeing them executed," said Henderson.

The legal costs of a death penalty case are astronomical, said Henderson. She argues that putting those resources towards services to a victim's family would be more effective.

"I think most victims families in this state aren't thinking about the death penalty," said Henderson. "They're thinking about how to get through the next day."

The poorest families, who are more likely to experience a homicide, cannot afford to seek mental health services – a service that they must desperately need, said Henderson.

MCASE is not waiting until they achieve a repeal to start helping the victim's family and the recently passed bill had language that would extend services to the families, said Henderson.

The death penalty does not accomplish anything or even deter murder, and until a repeal is passed, other problems cannot be solved, said Henderson.

"I don't think that you can fix these problems - I think all you can do is say we're going to take death off of the table, and then you begin to try to fix these problems," said Henderson. "Clearly issues of racial bias and jurisdictional difference aren't limited to the death penalty, but you know, when life and death is on the line, I think the Supreme Court of the United States has made it clear that death is different."

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