More than most issues, the question ofwhether the death penalty should be maintained in Maryland seems tosuffer from a lack of public debate. There were opposing editorials in The Baltimore Sun, but no point\counter-point [Time to abolish the death penalty in Md.?” January 18, 2013].
In that semblance of a “debate,” Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger argued that capital punishment: 1. is supported by public opinion, 48-42; 2. is reserved for only the most heinous crimes; 3. is sufficiently restrictive to ensure that only the guilty are found so; 4. allows that there must be a punishment for repeat murderers; 5. is an issue for which the expense is irrelevant to enacting proper public policy; 6. and is a matter for which mass murders require apposite justice.
Sister Helen Prejean and Delegate Heather Mizeur, respectively a
supporter of death penalty repeal and the legislative sponsor of repeal, argued
that capital punishment 1. doesn’t deter crime and is less effective than other
measures; 2. is racially discriminatory against those who murder white victims
(they do not even mention that the race of the defendant has been found to have
no effect on the likelihood of the use of capital punishment); 3. is
irreversible, leading to possible putting to death of an innocent person; 4. is
too expensive; 5. and is an issue on which public opinion is moving toward
In this exchange the proponent and opponents of the death
penalty talk past each other. The only direct clash is the likelihood of
verdict error. The combatants agree that public opinion is relevant, but
disagree what said opinion is on capital punishment, and they disagree
regarding whether cost should be even considered in the debate.
There is no discussion from opponents Prejean and Mizeur of the
critical importance of the availability of the death penalty: 1. what to do
about those who murder or order others’ murders after a
life-without-parole conviction; 2. what to do about serial murders of children;
or how prosecutors can bargain or plea bargain with a person who facesno
death penalty possibility.
In his State of the State address, Governor Martin O’Malley, consistent with the
debating shortcomings of opponents of the death penalty, also cites public
opinion polls without reference to their instability: when heinous crimes are
in the news, support for capital punishment rises, sometimes precipitously.
When Timothy McVeigh committed his grisly atrocities in Oklahoma City, a USA
TODAY/CNN/Gallup poll indicated that 81% of the public felt he should be
The Governor’s speech addressed none of the counter-arguments
against his claims supporting repeal of the death penalty, and he
didn’t even mention the issues of mass murder, murders of children, subsequent
murders or commissioning of murders by those who receive life-without parole,
and the bargaining chip denied to prosecutors.
Maryland may be a Democratically controlled state, but this does
not gainsay the need for full-fledged discussion of critical issues, especially
regarding the disposition of the most egregious criminal members of our state.
The Maryland citizenry is better served by honest confrontations
of the issues, particularly by those whose votes will determine whether the
tool of the death penalty protecting us from the worst of the worst will
We need all the issues and evidence addressed, not ignored until
it is too late.
Richard E. Vatz teaches Persuasion at Towson University and has
written often on the death penalty. He is the author of The Only Authentic
Book of Persuasion (Kendall Hunt, 2012, 2013)