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EDITORIAL

Death penalty deception

 • May 13, 2002    When it comes to breathtaking arrogance and contempt for the voters' intelligence, few politicians can match Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, or, sadly, his designated successor, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, and their associates in the Democratic Party organization which dominates this one-party state. Mr. Glendening's decision to call a moratorium on executions in Maryland for one year has zilch to do with "justice" or ensuring that innocent persons are not executed.

     It has everything to do with the fact that, despite the Kennedy name and associated fundraising prowess, Mrs. Townsend is a weak candidate. She has never been elected to office on her own. Before Mr. Glendening selected her as his running mate in 1994, she ran for Congress in the 1980s and lost. The most substantive responsibility she has had during her eight years as lieutenant governor was overseeing reform of the state's juvenile-justice system through the use of "boot camps" for young criminals. The result was a fiasco which resulted in the state paying out $4 million to settle lawsuits from delinquents who were routinely beaten up by sadistic guards while in state custody. Even with a relatively docile, liberal electorate like that in Maryland, it's not a good record to run on.

      Faced with the growing possibility that Marylanders may elect a Republican governor for the first time since Spiro Agnew won in 1966, the Glendening-Townsend organization has tried to use the death penalty moratorium as a "wedge issue" to galvanize their political base: liberal white voters in Montgomery County and black voters in Baltimore and Prince George's County who are adamantly opposed to capital punishment. It could work. Del. Salima Marriott, Baltimore Democrat, a member of the powerful Legislative Black Caucus and a strong opponent of the death penalty, praised Mrs. Townsend's announcement earlier this month that she now supports the moratorium, saying that the "racial justice" issue will help bring black voters to the polls.

     Unlike Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who says forthrightly that he's against capital punishment, Mr. Glendening and Mrs. Townsend will not take a clear stand. In the past, Mr. Glendening and Mrs. Townsend have said that a moratorium on capital punishment in Maryland was unnecessary because the University of Maryland was conducting a study, expected to be complete in September, which would examine whether there is racial bias in the way the penalty is applied. Now, however, they seem to have made a calculation that they can have it both ways: They can tell death penalty fans they still favor capital punishment (two convicted murderers have been executed in Maryland on their watch) and simultaneously tell opponents they favor a halt to executions.

     Mr. Glendening's announcement makes Maryland the second state with capital punishment, after Illinois, to enact a moratorium. But there is no similarity between the ways in which the two states apply the death penalty. In Illinois, Gov. George Ryan rightly halted executions for two years time after several persons who had been convicted of murder were exonerated and it had become clear that his state's legal system had failed to protect innocent people from being railroaded.

     In Maryland, no persuasive argument is being made that any of the state's 13 death row inmates are innocent of the murders for which they were convicted. Even Mr. Glendening says that issues of guilt and innocence of the accused were a secondary concern in determining whether to halt executions. The governor claimed to be concerned about the "impartiality" of the system, specifically the fact that 12 of the 13 were sentenced for murdering whites, and the fact that nine of the 13 on death row are from Baltimore County, while Baltimore City and Prince Georges County, which count many more homicides, sent just one person each to death row. But, contrary to Mr. Glendening's suggestion that there is something inherently awry, there are perfectly legitimate reasons why this is so.

     In relatively liberal, majority-black jurisdictions like Baltimore and Prince Georges County, prosecutors almost never seek the death penalty out of concern that juries simply won't convict, an eminently sensible approach. By contrast, the state's attorney in Baltimore County is Sandra O'Connor, who has an ironclad policy of seeking the death penalty in every case that has qualified for it under Maryland law, with two exceptions: when the victim's relatives are against a death sentence or evidence is based solely on a co-defendant's testimony. Mrs. O'Connor, a Republican who has been in office since 1975, has not faced an election opponent in 16 years.

     "Any attempt to paint her with racial bias is outrageous," Towson attorney and self-described "liberal Democrat" Gary S. Bernstein told the Baltimore Sun. "She is intellectually honest." The Glendening-Townsend explanations and arguments are not.