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Archive for Monday, February 26, 2007

Despite errors, states cling to death penalty

February 26, 2007

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Kirk Bloodsworth does this for a living now, telling people who truly believe that killing a killer is the right and just thing to do that they are mistaken, that man is too flawed, too prone to error, to render the kind of final judgment that we read about in Scripture.

Bloodsworth tells his story nearly every day. And still, his voice thickens, and still, the big man shudders and stifles a sob, as he did last week before a Senate committee in Annapolis that is considering repealing Maryland's death penalty. Bloodsworth - a former waterman who grew up on the Eastern Shore, served in the Marine Corps and had never been arrested - spent eight years, 11 months and 19 days in prison and two of those years on Maryland's Death Row, until his brute persistence finally persuaded authorities to conduct a DNA test. Bloodsworth, it turned out, did not commit the rape and murder of which he was convicted. Kimberly Ruffner committed those crimes, and in 2004, he pleaded guilty.

Society's debt

The taxpayers of Maryland paid Bloodsworth $300,000 as compensation for the income he lost during all those years. That's $92.39 a day, $23,000 a year. That doesn't include the millions the state spent to convict him, twice. Or the millions it cost to keep him on Death Row. It doesn't begin to compensate him for the fact that while he was wrongly kept in a box, he lost his mother. "And I lost my dignity," he told me. "Everybody said they were doing the right thing. And everybody was wrong."

On too many nights, even now, 14 years after his release, Bloodsworth's wife, Brenda, must shake him awake because he is in distress, in a cold sweat, having yet another nightmare about Maryland's death chamber, the room he slept under for hundreds of nights.

On this day, Bloodsworth told his story to men and women who have been elected by their fellow citizens to decide whether it is right to take the life of a fellow man who committed a terrible wrong. On their foreheads this day, several of those who must make this decision bore the sign of the cross in black ash.

They had taken time out of their workday to have a priest mark them in recognition of their penance. The priest had blessed them with these words: "Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return."

Governor's stand

On this Ash Wednesday, Maryland's governor, having received his blessing, made a rare appearance before members of the legislature to urge them to do as his conscience commanded him to do and repeal the death penalty.

Martin O'Malley did not run for governor with any promise to abolish capital punishment. This new governor entered office looking to avoid the most volatile issues, hoping, he said, to focus on "the things we agree on."

But now O'Malley told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee that "the death penalty cannot coexist with a republic founded on the belief in the inalienable dignity of the individual." The governor urged lawmakers to accept that the death penalty is "inherently unjust," that it is preposterously, pointlessly expensive, that it is flawed and therefore a danger to the innocent, and that it plain doesn't work as a deterrent. "Repeal the death penalty in our state this year," he said. Capital punishment is on hold in Maryland following an appeals court's ruling last year stopping lethal injections until the state issues new regulations for the procedure.

Neither Brenda nor Kirk Bloodsworth had any strong view about the death penalty before it became the defining concept in their lives. Most of us don't have to have a position on capital punishment. Politicians do, and their stands tend to be sharply defined; their jobs depend on it.

So turning around a state's policy on this issue is no simple task. Yet in one state after another this year, lawmakers are voting to repeal or put a moratorium on capital punishment. The death penalty seemed right to so many for so long, but now, in this era of DNA evidence, in this time when people are questioning the nature of truth and evidence in so many spheres of life, it just doesn't seem quite as clear.

But if last week's parade of witnesses slamming the death penalty as a counterproductive, flawed, expensive relic changed any minds, nobody was admitting to it. The committee is expected to say no to a repeal, probably by a one-vote margin.

Grasping at straws

Nobody on the committee argued that the death penalty is fairly administered, not in a state where every single man executed since 1978 killed a white person, not where every single executed prisoner committed his crime in Baltimore city or county. And nobody argued that the system is error-free.

No, the politicians who still believe in the death penalty were relegated to grasping at straws, repeatedly asking what the state would do without having the ultimate punishment to use against prisoners who are serving life sentences and then kill a prison guard. "What punishment do we give that guy?" asked state Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Republican who represents Cecil and Harford counties.

No one had an answer for her. The voices on the other side of the issue were looking at this from a completely different altitude. Bloodsworth told the politicians this: "The possibility that we could kill an innocent person - that trumps it all."

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