Proposed legislation to repeal Maryland's death penalty is scheduled to be heard by state lawmakers in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Wednesday afternoon in Annapolis.
Before the hearing, supporters of repeal are set to hold an 11:30 a.m. press conference Wednesday in the House Office Building with NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous and relatives of murder victims. The two bills pending in the Senate and House have 85 co-sponsors between them.
Repeal advocates are expected to argue that years of death penalty appeals torment families of murder victims who otherwise would never hear from a defendant sentenced to life in prison.
Patch caught up with Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger—who supports the death penalty—and Kirk Bloodsworth, the state's leading anti-death penalty advocate, to help frame the debate. (See video.)
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Both Shellenberger and Bloodsworth offer passionate reasons for their opinions on the death penalty.
Shellenberger said there needs to be an "ultimate punishment" for those who commit certain heinous acts, including the killing of a police officer or the murder of a correctional officer by a prisoner.
"What do you tell the family of a correctional officer when a defendant is already serving life for murder and then they killed your loved one?" Shellenberger said. "There has to be an ultimate penalty."
Bloodsworth served eight years, 10 months and 19 days in prison, including two years on death row, for the 1984 murder of a 9-year-old girl in Rosedale. DNA evidence exonerated him of the crime and Bloodsworth was released from prison in 1993.
"Honestly, after what happened to me, no one can say it can’t happen again..." Bloodsworth said. "We need to get rid of it."
Currently, Maryland has five defendants sitting on death row, including three who have avoided being executed since 1983.
The state has executed five men since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, the last being Wesley Baker in 2005 for the 1991 murder of grandmother Jane Tyson. She was shot and killed during an armed robbery in a Catonsville parking lot in front of her 6-year-old granddaughter and 4-year-old grandson.
Since Baker's execution, Maryland has established some of the most stringent policies in the country for prosecutors to seek the death penalty. Shellenberger said since 2009 capital cases in the state are limited to those with "biological or DNA evidence proving guilt, a videotaped confession or a videotape that can link the defendant to a homicide."
Those restrictions, Shellenberger said, practically eliminates the chances of someone being wrongly convicted of capital murder and offer enough safeguards to ensure those improperly imprisoned—like Bloodsworth—are freed.
Baltimore County has only sought the death penalty twice since the new restrictions were put in place, Shellenberger said. Both cases involved defendants in the 2010 murder of Hess gas station owner William "Ray" Porter.
Walter Bishop after shooting Porter twice at the East Joppa Road station in Towson after he told police he was promised $9,000 from Porter's wife, Karla.
Shellenberger said he will seek the death penalty against Karla Porter, who is scheduled to go to trial later this year.
"I believe that Maryland right now has the most restrictive death penalty statute in the country," Shellenberger said. "[The legislature has] added conditions to our death penalty statute that basically said you can not rely solely on eyewitness testimony, that if you want to go forward with a death penalty case you would also need DNA linking the defendant to the crime, or a video taped confession or an actual video of the murder taking place itself."
Bloodsworth counters that the justice system is far from perfect. He stated that 140 death row inmates have been wrongly convicted in the United States and 280 people have been cleared of crimes through DNA, including 17 on death row.
Bloodsworth also cited the work of the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment which recommended in 2008 that the state should repeal the death penalty for fear of executing an innocent person along with concerns over racial and geographic disparities.
Bloodsworth added that that requiring someone to spend the rest of their life in prison is a far worse punishment than having that person executed.
"The crime that I was accused of, and ultimately went to death row for and was later exonerated, the real perpetrator after the fact was never given the death penalty," Bloodsworth said. "I think that it's a better punishment for people because they have to sit in this place for the rest of their lives knowing what they did."
The question is: Where do you stand on repealing Maryland's death penalty? Share your answers in the comments section below.