Deeply felt and widely expressed public concerns about racism in Maryland’s death penalty system created the context for former Maryland Governor Paris Glendening to impose a moratorium on executions in May 2002. Maryland was the nation’s second state moratorium. That moratorium was overturned in January 2003, when Robert Ehrlich became the state’s first Republican governor in 35 years. Maryland Attorney General Joseph Curran also entered the debate that same month to become the nation’s first sitting state attorney general to advocate for outright repeal of the death penalty.
Executions resumed in June 2004 with the lethal injection of Steven Oken. In December 2005, Wesley Baker became the fifth prisoner executed in Maryland since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978. Today, Maryland has five men on death row. In 2003, a comprehensive University of Maryland/College Park (UMD) study found that combination of a black defendant and a white victim is much more likely to evoke a death sentence, and a death sentence is much, much more likely if a murder was committed in one jurisdiction – Baltimore County. While only about 7% of all the murders in Maryland annually happen in this County, it is where most Maryland death cases are prosecuted. All of our state’s current death row prisoners were convicted of murdering a white person even though black residents are the victims of about 80% of Maryland homicides annually.
The risk of executing an innocence person remains a real threat in Maryland. Once sentenced to death in Maryland, Kirk Bloodsworth was the first U.S. prisoner to be released as a result of new DNA analysis, which proved in 1993 he did not commit the rape and murder for which he was convicted. After 10 years of refusing to acknowledge Bloodsworth’s innocence, the Baltimore County State’s Attorney finally used the DNA evidence to find the actual murderer in 2003.
Most studies estimate that each death sentence costs the state “$400,000 over and above what it would normally cost to process, and then maintain a prisoner serving a life sentence” (Judge Cathell, Maryland Court of Appeals). Retrials also cost money, and Maryland has one of nation’s highest appellate reversal rates, likely due to the complexity of death penalty prosecutions and prosecutorial misconduct and error.
The human costs of the death penalty are paid by the victim’s family, who must return to court again and again for appeals. An execution makes another family grieve and stigmatizes the prisoner’s family. Resources are diverted that could provide needed support for the victims of violence.
Sentiment against the death penalty is growing in Maryland. A February 2007 poll by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research found that 61% of Maryland voters believe that a sentence of life without parole is “an acceptable substitute for the death penalty.”