Fairness of Death-Penalty Panels Questioned
By John Gramlich, Staff Writer
Debates erupted in both states last month as lawmakers moved ahead with plans to examine the death penalty in detail to determine whether it is being applied justly and in a worthwhile manner in each state. Maryland legislators agreed to set up a new study panel , while Tennessee is considering extending the study period for an existing review panel.
Critics in the two states say the study commissions are structured to include too many appointees who will make recommendations to end capital punishment and are designed to buy time and political cover for lawmakers who want to repeal the death penalty.
While Maryland and Tennessee are the latest states to create or consider extending death-penalty study panels, they are not alone. Similar commissions already exist in California and North Carolina, and efforts are under way in at least three other states - Arkansas, Missouri and New Hampshire - to set up study panels.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the anti-capital punishment Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., said now is a logical time for states to consider such studies. The U.S. Supreme Court on April 16 upheld the three-drug lethal injection process used to execute inmates in most of the 35 states with the death penalty, clearing the way for executions to resume after a seven-month moratorium, while the justices considered a challenge to the procedure.
"Before we go back to an execution every week, why not study this thing a little bit more?" Dieter said.
But while the governor may appoint the majority of the commission's members, he is ordered by the legislation to consider "the broad diversity of views on capital punishment, and the racial, ethnic, gender and geographic diversity of the state."
Critics in Maryland also say further examination of capital punishment is unnecessary. In 2003, a University of Maryland study found racial and other disparities in the state's application of capital punishment, while an earlier study found similar problems. Nationwide, at least 10 states have studied their death-penalty systems, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
"We've studied this thing upside down, inside out, 18 bazillion times," Maryland House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell, a Republican, said in a telephone interview with Stateline.org . "The unspoken truth is that (opponents of capital punishment) are holding out hope that they can somehow move what has been a deadlock in the Maryland legislature on a repeal effort."
But those who support Maryland's latest study say life-and-death questions always warrant evaluation.
"If you're a death-penalty proponent and you don't want to be bothered with the facts, then I guess it's just a waste of time, but I don't see how you can reasonably argue that we know everything we could possibly know," said Maryland state Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Democratic chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Maryland's commission must issue its findings and make recommendations by mid-December under legislation now awaiting O'Malley's signature.
In Tennessee, an association of state prosecutors, the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference , has come out against a legislative proposal to give an existing commission more time to study the death penalty - and at least one member of the panel itself also is opposed to further study.
Verna Wyatt, a victims' advocate who sits on the 16-member Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty, said her experience has been "very frustrating" because of the makeup of the committee, which began its work last year. Most panel members were designated by the General Assembly, while two were appointed by Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat who supports capital punishment.
Tennessee state Sen. Doug Jackson and state Rep. Kent Coleman, the Democratic co-chairs of the committee, did not respond to requests for interviews. The panel, which was originally ordered to announce its findings by October of this year, would have until January of next year under legislation moving through the General Assembly - though it had sought an extension until next October.
In Arkansas, a group called the Arkansas Death Penalty Moratorium Campaign held a news conference the day after the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on lethal injection to announce it would collect signatures in an effort to ask Gov. Mike Beebe (D) to order a moratorium on executions and approve a study. A spokesman for Beebe said the governor considers capital punishment "the law of the land" in Arkansas and has no plans to call for a moratorium or study.
Proposed study commissions in Missouri and New Hampshire also face resistance.
A Republican legislator in Missouri, state Rep. Bill Deeken, has sponsored legislation that would impose a moratorium on executions while a commission studies capital punishment. But the proposal comes at a time when Gov. Matt Blunt (R) is pushing for an expansion of the death penalty so it may be applied to those who commit the non-capital crime of raping a child.
In New Hampshire, Republican Attorney General Kelly Ayotte has come out against a proposed study commission, saying it would prejudice a pair of murder cases scheduled to begin later this year.
Advocates on both sides of the death penalty agree that the politics surrounding study commissions have grown more passionate as a result of New Jersey's decision late last year to abolish capital punishment - the first state in more than 40 years to do so. The Garden State's decision came after a study commission recommended replacing the death penalty with life without parole, advice that lawmakers followed.
Robert Blecker, a pro-death penalty New York Law School professor who testified before New Jersey's commission, said the panel showed "incredible bias." Blecker recently wrote a rebuttal to the commission's findings , claiming members ignored persuasive arguments in support of the death penalty and used skewed public polling techniques to justify their own conclusions.
Blecker said he believes the death penalty is worth studying, but only if it is studied fairly.
"The death penalty needs revision. It needs refinement. I'm not one who urges us to stay pat," he said. Death-penalty studies can be effective if members "just really do it," he said, and "don't pretend to do it."