The death penalty in Maryland has changed significantly since the first person was executed in 1773, especially in the past 50 years. As of 2013, Maryland has repealed the death penalty and the harshest sentence in the state is now life without the possibility of parole. The repeal of the death penalty also led to the commutation of the sentence of all previous death row inmates to life without the possibility of parole. The decision to remove the death penalty as an option has been supported by many, but also has been fairly controversial for its potential ramifications on sentencing going forward.
Maryland’s first execution was of four servants in 1773 for the murder of their master. In the early 1800s, the parameters for the death penalty was established when the state established degrees of murder. The death penalty was carried out by public hanging until hangings were moved to a private area in 1913. In the 1960s, the gas chamber was briefly used for executions, but only 4 individuals were executed in that manner. In 1994, lethal injection became the primary method of execution. Interestingly, since 1923 all those executed in Maryland have been men.
In the 1980s and 90s, Maryland began reforming the death penalty. In 1987, Maryland passed a law to prohibit juveniles from being sentenced to death. In 1989, the state banned the execution of mentally disabled individuals. The bigger changes came in the 1990s, when DNA evidence became available and resulted in a significant shift in the way lawyers and politicians looked at the death penalty. In 1984, Kirk Bloodsworth was convicted for the rape and murder of a 9-year- old girl. Although he claimed his innocence at all times, he spent 2 years on death row before being resentenced to life in prison. After spending nine years in jail, he was exonerated in 1993 based on DNA testing. The Bloodsworth case caused Governor Parris Glendening to re-evaluate many of the death penalty cases and, in one case, he commuted a death sentence, saying that “being almost certain someone is guilty was not sufficient to justify a death sentence.”
Shortly before he left office in 2002, Governor Glendening placed a moratorium on executions that was lifted by Governor Ehrlich in 2003. This shift back and forth signaled the partisan divide on the issue and after Democrat Martin O’Malley became Governor the death penalty was further reformed. In 2009, Maryland instituted the strictest death penalty laws in the country and in 2013, the death penalty was repealed in the Maryland legislature by a 27-20 vote.
The death penalty is highly controversial and for good reason. There have been dozens of studies to analyze its abilities as a deterrent to crime. Most studies and police chiefs believe that the death penalty is more costly than it’s worth and is not a significant deterrent to crime. This does not end the controversy though as many lawyers and politicians will argue that the death penalty is a tool that prosecutors should have at their disposal during the plea bargaining process. When looking at murder cases, one study found that more defendants pled guilty to their original murder charges when threatened with the death penalty. When the death penalty was available to the prosecutor, the even-more-pronounced result was that fewer defendants reached plea deals down to lesser charges like second-degree murder instead of first. The ability to threaten a defendant with the death penalty could help reduce legal costs by avoiding capital murder trials. It also could help ensure that guilty individuals who commit heinous crimes are not pled down to charges when they are indeed guilty of the crime they were being charged with. The jury is still out on the death penalty, but thus far Maryland has shown no willingness to reinstate it.
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