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Death Penalty Debate Ends Silence Over Family Trauma

T he phone call came in the middle of midterm exams at the University of Illinois. "We need you to come home," Vivian Rice told her son, Craig. "Something's happened to Aunt Millie."

Craig Rice got on a plane and never returned to college in Illinois. When he arrived back home, he learned that his mother had walked five houses down from her own place in Silver Spring to see her sister. It was March 3, 1993, and Vivian Rice discovered a ghastly scene: Mildred Horn, 43, a flight attendant for American Airlines, shot dead, shot in the eye. Her 8-year-old son, Trevor, who suffered from a severe case of cerebral palsy, suffocated in his crib. Trevor's overnight nurse, Janice Saunders, 38, shot dead, also in the eye, now surrounded by pieces of a quilt she'd been sewing.

Sixteen years later to the day, Craig Rice was on the phone with his mother. It was the morning of the Maryland Senate's vote on whether to go along with Gov. Martin O'Malley's drive to repeal the death penalty. "I think I should tell my story," Rice told his mother.

"Well, if that's what you think it would take," she replied.

Rice, now 36, is a first-term delegate in the Maryland House, representing Germantown, Potomac and an area from Montgomery's rural north end down to North Bethesda. When he first ran in 2006, he said nothing about the murders that dominated his family's lives for more than a decade. He never mentioned the trials, the appeals -- nothing about the case that won national attention because the killer had been a hired hit man, employed by Aunt Millie's ex-husband, who was scheming to get the $1.7 million trust fund set up for Trevor in a settlement with the hospital where he was born.

Rice feared becoming known simply as the guy from the James Edward Perry case, the one in which the families of the victims sued the publishers of "Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors," alleging that the book was used as a how-to guide in the Horn murders. (The families won a multimillion-dollar settlement in 1999.)

In Rice's official biography, the only whisper of the trauma is a line that says he left Illinois "following a family tragedy."

Now, Rice approached the governor after O'Malley's big Annapolis rally against capital punishment: "I spoke from my personal perspective, told him he wasn't considering the victims. I felt somebody needed to stand up for families who believe the death penalty is the right punishment."

Theirs was a polite, quick exchange; Rice knew he couldn't persuade his fellow Democrat. But he wasn't finished. On the morning of the vote, the delegate dashed off an e-mail to every senator: "I beg of you for my family and the numerous victims across the state, please do not repeal the death penalty. . . . Just 2 months ago, my mother called me at 3am in the morning because her alarm had gone off and told me that Perry was trying to get her. She and my family will never be the same."

Rice doesn't know if his plea changed any votes; he expects not. "On this issue, you're either one way or the other," he says. "There is no gray."

He does know that he is the only black member of the legislature who favors keeping the death penalty, that his position is at odds with that of most of his constituents, and that there is good evidence that capital sentences are meted out disproportionately to black criminals.

"But the question is, are more people of color on Death Row because the system puts them there or are they committing more crimes because of unequal access to education and opportunity? The way I was raised, it was always to be held accountable for your actions," Rice says. "People have to answer for whatever crimes they've done."

He hears the arguments and reads the studies and comes back to this: Perry's fingerprints were found on little Trevor's breathing tube.

I've always thought the system errs when it takes into account the views and passions of victims' families; for all the tragedy they've suffered, they are naturally driven by exactly the kinds of emotion that the justice system should seek to put aside in calculating fair and proper punishment for criminals.

Rice argues, however, that it is the families' determination that assures that many cases ever get resolved. James Perry was sentenced to death, but his conviction was overturned on appeal because the jury had improperly been played an incriminating tape recording made without the murderer's assent. When he was convicted a second time, in 2001, the jury put him away for life without parole.

Rice believes the system worked. The right man was convicted. And despite concerns about how the death penalty is applied, Perry got off death row. "This case shows that a poor black man from Detroit could get the system to work for him," Rice contends.

During his campaign, Rice told voters he was running "because of the values my mother instilled in me." But the murders were a big reason. "I wanted to make sure no one else feels this kind of pain, and after seeing all the effort that went into convicting the killer, I asked myself, 'What am I doing to help my community and my fellow man?' "

The Senate rejected O'Malley's pleas for a repeal, voting instead to limit the death penalty to cases with biological evidence or a taped confession. That might have spared Perry from a death sentence, but Rice nonetheless supports the compromise. "I would never want this issue to be the one thing that defines me or anyone," he says. "I just felt you have to do what's right in your heart."

By Marc Fisher |  March 8, 2009; 7:02 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

What I want to know is what happened to the ex-husband and the trust fund. It seems to me that he's the one who really deserves the death penalty, not the hired thug. And he's the one I'd worry about coming to get me. Life without parole after the first trial might have avoided the whole appeal process and retrial for Perry.

Posted by: bforrence | March 8, 2009 9:59 AM

The ex-husband is serving a life term with no parole.

Posted by: Marc Fisher | March 8, 2009 8:28 PM

Most of the countries in the world who still execute their citizens are repressive Islamic dictatorships. Maybe we should really go whole-hog into the "law and order" thing, and start whipping people who associate across sexes, including 75-year-old women? I'm sure our fellow death penalty afficionados among the other nations have some GREAT ideas for barbaric things to do to "keep order". Here's one:

Viva Shari'a Law, and the good folks here who want to keep it.

Posted by: B2O2 | March 10, 2009 1:10 PM

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