† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
The Death Penalty Crumbles ~ Maryland and Beyond
by Emma Weisfeld-Adams for Equal Justice USA (EJUSA)
On Friday the State House in Maryland voted to pass legislation to repeal the death penalty with a vote of 82-56.
The State Senate already passed the legislation and the governor has promised to sign.
Maryland will become the sixth state in six years to end the death penalty.
Satirist Stephen Colbert called the death penalty “as American as killing someone with an apple pie,” but jokes like that might not work much longer.
America’s death penalty appears to be crumbling.
Delaware introduced repeal legislation last Tuesday. Colorado’s House judiciary committee debated repeal yesterday. Nebraska lawmakers held death penalty hearings the same day. Other states like Colorado, Kansas, and Montana have come close in the past and will consider it again in the next few years
Nationally, the number of executions and death sentences has continued to trend downward for the last decade. (see the Death Penalty Information Center) for more execution and sentencing statistics)
And in the wake of this latest development in Maryland, momentum away from the death penalty will likely accelerate.
Maryland tried everything to make the death penalty work: a moratorium, a large-scale study, and a set of sweeping reforms in 2009 that made their death penalty the narrowest in the nation.
After years of trying to make the death penalty work, Maryland finally threw up their hands and said ‘enough is enough’: The death penalty can’t be fixed.
Even the very man who led the charge for reforming the death penalty four years ago, now says it can’t be fixed. Maryland Senator Robert Zirkin, previously supported the death penalty but this year became a pivotal vote in favor of repeal. Zirkin said despite the reforms he designed Maryland still risked executing an innocent person.
Maryland proved a lot of the arguments for the death penalty just don’t hold water
One of my favorite moments during the campaign was during Maryland’s Senate debate when Sen. Jamie Raskin responded to opponents of repeal who argued that the death penalty is needed for the “worst of the worst.”
First Sen. Raskin he reminded everyone that the “worst of the worst” theory doesn’t make the death penalty any more accurate. He pointed to the horrendously heinous murder for which Kirk Bloodsworth was sentenced to death. Bloodsworth was later exonerated by DNA evidence.
Then Raskin said:
Every murder is the worst of the worst if it’s your loved one that was murdered.
That shut them down!
People often say that the death penalty is needed because of victims’ families. But in Maryland – and across the nation – it is precisely those families that have been driving the message that the death penalty is nothing but a cruel hoax that prolongs their pain.
Vivian Penda, whose son Dennis was murdered, testified before the Maryland Commission to Study the Death Penalty, saying:
The sad reality is that the death penalty handcuffs the surviving families of homicide victims to decades of legal procedures. In the end, the vast majority are re-sentenced to life without parole, which could have been sought at trial.
Bonnita Spikes, whose husband, Michael, was murdered also testified in Maryland, saying:
Over and over, I have found families in dire need of support and traumatic grief counseling services… Most don’t have any insurance. Nor are they resourceful in knowing who to go and beg for help. I have come to know people, young and old, who have little or no access to professional help coping with their overwhelming loss. For most of these families, the notion of a death sentence for their loved one’s murderer isn’t even a remote thought. They are struggling to hold their households together, to help their families grieve and survive the trauma one day at a time.
Many African American victims’ families spoke of how the death penalty showers resources on a few cherry-picked cases (almost always ones in which the victims were white) while ignoring the things that might actually help them address their trauma and rebuild their lives – things like help with funeral expenses, specialized grief counseling, help navigating the legal system, and time off from work.
They also need to be reminded that there’s more to do. Governor O’Malley has pledged to use some of the savings from ending the death penalty to improving services for people who have lost loved ones to murder.
You can help make that happen.
If you live in Maryland: Acknowledge how your state delegates voted on repeal. Thank them if they voted ‘yes,’ express your disappointment if they voted ‘no,’ and – however they voted on the death penalty – ask them to stand with Governor OThank some of the leading Maryland House delegates for standing up to end the death penalty but also ask that they do the same for victims’ families.
Maryland’s death penalty will be over. That is a triumph in itself. But justice is about more than just the absence of injustice.
Maryland has the opportunity to fill the space that the broken death penalty used to occupy with something that can actually work to make communities safer and healthier. And that should be way more American than killing someone with an apple pie.
Emma Weisfeld-Adams is Communications Manager with Equal Justice USA (EJUSA), a national, grassroots organization working to build a criminal justice system that is fair, effective, and responsive to everyone impacted by crime. Town by town and state by state, we cut through the polarization and find common ground for lasting, real-world solutions that prevent violence and rebuild people’s lives in its aftermath, so that all of us can be safer.