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Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, Key Testimony, August 5, 2008

Harry J. Trainor, Jr. and William C. Brennan, Jr., Maryland attorneys who have represented capital defendants in Maryland over many years. They discussed the enormous cost of mounting a death penalty defense case and the financial burden such cases place on private attorneys who handle them on behalf of the state. Mr. Trainor pointed out that panel attorneys in capital cases are paid only $50 an hour, capped at $20,000 for a case, the second lowest payment rate in the nation. By comparison, the federal system pays attorneys $170 an hour and does not impose a cap on fees.

Mr. Trainor said that while Maryland has been fortunate that good attorneys have often been willing to take on capital cases in the past, the inadequate compensation system threatens that in the future.

"A system that puts a person's life on the line cannot hang its hopes on the sheer luck that a few extraordinary good Samaritans will always be there and be willing to make these kinds of sacrifices," Mr. Trainor testified. "It is my personal hope that at the end of this study period, this commission will recognize that perhaps it is time that Maryland followed the trend away from the death penalty, so that a person will not live or die based on the resources and experience of his or her attorneys."
Both attorneys agreed that the capital punishment system in Maryland is broken beyond repair and should be abolished.

Deborah Fleischaker, an attorney and former director of the American Bar Association Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project. She testified about her work with the ABA from 2001 to June 2008 encouraging bar associations to press for moratoriums in their jurisdictions and encouraging state government leaders to establish moratoriums and undertake detailed examinations of capital punishment laws and processes. She outlined findings showing "grave problems" in the death penalty systems in eight states that were studied. She said "red flags" in Maryland's system suggest that the state's system is also inadequate. For example, she highlighted the low pay rate that the state makes to private attorneys who handle death penalty cases in Maryland, which jeopardizes the quality of legal representation provided.

"Our laws require that we make good on the promise of justice for all capital defendants," Ms. Fleischaker testified. "If this is impossible, the death penalty should not remain an option."

Stuart Simms, former Baltimore City state's attorney and former Maryland public safety secretary. Mr. Simms urged the panel to recommend ending the death penalty in Maryland. He said the death penalty system wastes precious state resources that could be better used to help victims, fight crime or improve conditions in state prisons. He also said the system suffers because statistics show it falls more often on those who kill whites. And he concluded that a sentence of life without the possibility of parole is now a viable option for harsh punishment.

"I believe that Maryland needs to break free from old thinking about criminal law and criminal justice and eliminate the death penalty as an option in criminal cases," Mr. Simms testified. "Our current model can no longer be tailored or fixed."

Sarah Gardner, from Hyattsville, is the sister of a woman who was killed during a robbery in 1986 and a health-care professional who has provided services to victims of crime. She described how her family was able to cope with the death of her sister through expensive counseling. And she pointed out how the criminal justice system in Maryland does not provide such critically needed counseling for most crime victims, which falls particularly hard on those without the resources to pay for services themselves.

"When you consider disparity, please remember that even among the community of families of homicide, there is significant socio-economic disparity," Ms. Gardner testified.

She concluded: "I strongly urge this Commission to recommend repeal of the death penalty and to relocate the resources consumed by capital prosecution to expanding mental health services to families traumatized in the wake of murder."

Bonnita Spikes, a Maryland resident whose husband was murdered 14 years ago. Ms. Spikes described the toll her husband's murder took on her and her family, particularly her son, who tried to commit suicide and required intensive support services. She pointed out that crime victims without financial resources are often unable to obtain the support services they need in the wake of a violent crime, something she has seen firsthand doing outreach work with crime victims.

"Over and over, I have found families in dire need of support and traumatic grief counseling services," Ms. Spikes testified. "Most don't have any insurance. Nor are they resourceful in knowing who to go and beg for help. I have come to know people, young and old, who have little or no access to professional help coping with their overwhelming loss. For most of these families, the notion of a death sentence for their loved one's murderer isn't even a remote thought. They are struggling to hold their households together, to help their families grieve and survive the trauma one day at a time."

Marty Price, a Hagerstown resident, testified about his personal experience of having a father convicted of murdering his mother and stepsister and losing a nephew to murder. He recounted the emotional toll the murders have taken on him and the counseling and education he has undergone to end the "cycle of violence."

Lawrence Egbert, a professor of anesthesiology at Johns Hopkins, called for an end to the death penalty and said medical doctors should have no role in executions. He said taking part in state executions "degrades" the medical profession.