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High Drama At Maryland's Death Penalty Commission

A commission examining capital punishment in Maryland produced some high drama yesterday, as an exonerated death row inmate tangled with the state's attorney from the jurisdiction that sentenced him to death.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Schellenberger, a member of the commission, told his colleagues that he believes in Maryland there is virually no chance today of prosecutors falsely convicting and executing an innocent person.

Furthermore, Schellenberger said he was not troubled by the disparity among counties in how often prosecutors seek the death penalty.

"I believe jurisdictional disparity is really local rule," said Schellenberger, whose office was found in a study to be 13 times more likely to seek a death sentence than prosecutors in the city of Baltimore.

His comments invited a pointed response from another commission member, Kirk Bloodsworth, who was twice convicted of the 1984 murder of a 9-year-old girl before being freed in 1993 based on DNA evidence.

"I think it's a little cavalier for you or anybody in the state to say that they couldn't make an error of that magnitude, and I think my case proves it," Bloodsworth said.

Schellenberger said he was not yet state's attorney at the time and was not directly involved in Bloodworth's case.

The commission is expected to make recommendations to Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) later this year about whether to continue executions in Maryland.

The state has had a de facto moratorium on capital punishment since December 2006, when its highest court ruled that regulations for lethal injection had not been properly adopted. The administration of O'Malley, a death penalty opponent, has yet to issue new regulations.

Bills to repeal the death penalty outright have failed in recent years in the legislature, despite high-profile support from O'Malley.

By John Wagner  |  October 8, 2008; 11:11 AM ET
Categories:  John Wagner  
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I'll point out that there's a difference between "impossible" and "virtually impossible", and that there just might be some systemic changes put into place since 1993 which reduce the likelihood of a wrongful conviction. Have they reduced it enough? Well, that's why we've got a commission looking into the matter, although it would help if the members hadn't made up their minds beforehand.

Posted by: Michael N. | October 8, 2008 12:02 PM | Report abuse

As someone who has practiced law in Maryland for 15 years, I can attest that the justice system is EXTREMELY susceptible to false convictions. The bottom line is, as long as human judgment is involved, there is going to be bias, benignly motivated blindness, and an over-reliance on emotional appeal. In the end, the prosecution will never admit these problems because to do so would me that they would find it exceedingly difficult to do their job. An excellent case in point in the Bloodsworth case. Another example is a case in which a man convicted of rape was years later shown by DNA evidence NOT to be the sperm donor (and there woman had not had sex with anyone else). That case relied almost exclusively on one of the most unreliable sources of evidence, a victim’s eyewitness testimony. Yet after the DNA exoneration, the prosecutor still refused to back down on his assertion that the exonerated man was guilty, stating simply that he “knew in his heart” that the man was guilty.

Whether the death penalty is abolished or not, a renewed emphasis needs to be placed on the presumption of innocence and the rigorous enforcement of fair evidentiary procedures that are designed to promote discovery of the truth (whatever that may be) as opposed to gamesmanship of skilled attorneys who measure there success not by justice served but by notches carved into their belts.

Posted by: MdAttorney | October 8, 2008 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Talk about a misleading headline!

I really do not know why all the taxpayers money has been wasted in this so-called study. The minds were made up by the people appointing the commission and the appointments to the commission reflected that idea.

I will not take any bets on what the report say!

Posted by: Bill | October 8, 2008 12:52 PM | Report abuse

All you need to look at in Maryland is how many murder, rape and other violent crime exonerations there have been over the past 20 years. You'll be quite frightened by how often our criminal justice system makes mistakes and how it is usually someone outside of the judicial system who proves the innocence of the wrongfully convicted!

Posted by: RCD | October 8, 2008 1:07 PM | Report abuse

Abolish the death penalty. End of story.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 8, 2008 1:09 PM | Report abuse

You heard it here first! If you are a criminal and want to do something worthy of the death penalty, then move to MD!

They also love illegals and all the rapes and killings they contribute to so be sure to consult them first on how to skirt the law before you act on your impulses....

Then you can relax and enjoy life in your cell with full cable access and 3-square meals a day to the tune of 80k/year.

Its more than most criminals make in 5 years so consider yourself lucky that you are not only getting away with murder, but also that WE ARE PAYING YOU 80k/year for the rest of your life to do it!

congrats MD... you win the darwin award this year!

Posted by: Yawn | October 8, 2008 1:27 PM | Report abuse

Believe it or not, I actually agree with MDAttorney's statements. While I am not an attorney in ANY state, I'm married to an attorney licensed in MD, DC, and Ohio (I know, that's like saying, 'I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night!') and we have this discussion frequently. I support the death penalty, while she does not. My argument has always been that, yes, as long as HUMAN beings have to interpret evidence, there exists the possibility of HUMAN error. However, in all cases, especially death penalty cases, we must take due diligence in giving and receiving an opinion as unbiased as is HUMANLY possible. If we do that, I'm confident that we can bring the false conviction rate down to NEARLY zero. I can live with that.

Posted by: JC Hull | October 8, 2008 1:32 PM | Report abuse

The Death Penalty Provides More Protection for Innocents
Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters, contact info below
Often, the death penalty dialogue gravitates to the subject of innocents at risk of execution. Seldom is a more common problem reviewed. That is, how innocents are more at risk without the death penalty.
To state the blatantly clear, living murderers, in prison, after release or escape, are much more likely to harm and murder, again, than are executed murderers.
Although an obvious truism, it is surprising how often  folks overlook the enhanced incapacitation benefits of the death penalty over incarceration.
No knowledgeable and honest party questions that the death penalty has the most extensive due process protections in US criminal law.
Therefore, actual innocents are more likely to be sentenced to life imprisonment and more likely to die in prison serving under that sentence, that it is that an actual innocent will be executed.
That is. logically, conclusive.
16 recent studies, inclusive of their defenses, find for death penalty deterrence.
A surprise? No.
Life is preferred over death. Death is feared more than life.
Some believe that all studies with contrary findings negate those 16 studies. They don't. Studies which don't find for deterrence don't say no one is deterred, but that they couldn't measure those deterred.
What prospect of a negative outcome doesn't deter some? There isn't one . . . although committed anti death penalty folk may say the death penalty is the only one.
However, the premier anti death penalty scholar accepts it as a given that the death penalty is a deterrent, but does not believe it to be a greater deterrent than a life sentence. Yet, the evidence is compelling and un refuted that death is feared more than life.
Some death penalty opponents argue against death penalty deterrence, stating that it's a harsher penalty to be locked up without any possibility of getting out.
Reality paints a very different picture.
What percentage of capital murderers seek a plea bargain to a death sentence? Zero or close to it. They prefer long term imprisonment.
What percentage of convicted capital murderers argue for execution in the penalty phase of their capital trial? Zero or close to it. They prefer long term imprisonment.
What percentage of death row inmates waive their appeals and speed up the execution process? Nearly zero. They prefer long term imprisonment.
This is not, even remotely, in dispute.
Life is preferred over death. Death is feared more than life.
Furthermore, history tells us that lifers have many ways to get out: Pardon, commutation, escape, clerical error, change in the law, etc.
In choosing to end the death penalty, or in choosing not implement it, some have chosen to spare murderers at the cost of sacrificing more innocent lives.
Furthermore, possibly we have sentenced 25 actually innocent people to death since 1973, or 0.3% of those so sentenced. Those have all been released upon post conviction review. The anti death penalty claims, that the numbers are significantly higher, are a fraud, easily discoverable by fact checking.
6 inmates have been released from death row because of DNA evidence. An additional 9 were released from prison, because of DNA exclusion, who had previously been sentenced to death.
The innocents deception of death penalty opponents has been getting exposure for many years. Even the behemoth of anti death penalty newspapers, The New York Times,  has recognized that deception.
To be sure, 30 or 40 categorically innocent people have been released from death row . . . (1) This when death penalty opponents were claiming the release of 119 "innocents" from death row. Death penalty opponents never required actual innocence in order for cases to be added to their "exonerated" or "innocents" list. They simply invented their own definitions for exonerated and innocent and deceptively shoe horned large numbers of inmates into those definitions - something easily discovered with fact checking.
There is no proof of an innocent executed in the US, at least since 1900.
If we accept that the best predictor of future performance is past performance, we can reasonable conclude that the DNA cases will be excluded prior to trial, and that for the next 8000 death sentences, that we will experience a 99.8% accuracy rate in actual guilt convictions. This improved accuracy rate does not include the many additional safeguards that have been added to the system, over and above DNA testing.
Of all the government programs in the world, that put innocents at risk, is there one with a safer record and with greater protections than the US death penalty?
Full report -All Innocence Issues: The Death Penalty, upon request.
Full report - The Death Penalty as a Deterrent, upon request
(1) The Death of Innocents: A Reasonable Doubt,
New York Times Book Review, p 29, 1/23/05, Adam Liptak,
national legal correspondent for The NY Times

copyright 2007-2008, Dudley Sharp
Permission for distribution of this document, in whole or in part,  is approved with proper attribution.
Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
e-mail 713-622-5491,
Houston, Texas
Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS, VOA and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O'Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.
A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally.
Pro death penalty sites   (Sweden)

Posted by: Dudley Sharp | October 8, 2008 1:40 PM | Report abuse

There is not one proven case of an innocent person being executed in the modern era. Yet numerous murderers have gotten off death row and because they lived, were able to kill again. Kenneth Allen McDuff of Texas is probably the worst example (and you wonder why Texas pulls no punches in putting killers to death?).

Yet you rarely, if ever, hear of these facts put together side by side. The liberal media, so ideologically opposed to capital punishment, continues to abandon fairness on this issue.

Innocents are much, much, more at risk of being murdered by a killer spared death than being wrongly executed.

Sorry liberals. The facts are the facts.

Posted by: Aaron Veselenak | October 8, 2008 10:46 PM | Report abuse

an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

Posted by: tunaman | October 9, 2008 7:02 AM | Report abuse

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