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Editorial: Repeal protects wrongly convicted

Maryland legislators took an important step forward this week in ensuring that no innocent people will be put to death at the hands of the state. With Wednesday’s approval of a death penalty repeal by the Senate, Maryland is poised to become the 18th state to ban the practice. The District of Columbia also does not allow executions.

Emotions spike high on both sides of this long-running debate, and capital punishment is one of those topics where the two camps each have valid arguments. Really, in this conversation, there is no clear-cut right answer.

Death penalty proponents argue that the potential positives with regard to the criminal justice system (those related to deterrence and retribution) make execution a valuable tool in ensuring a civilized, functioning society. Opponents have myriad reasons for their position, including fear of executing the innocent, uneven (and sometimes racially biased) application, religious principles and ethical values.

Even the nation’s highest court has struggled with the issue. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional for a variety of reasons — each justice wrote his own concurring opinion — and then in 1976 reinstated the practice, calling for guided discretion.

Here in Maryland, such weighty decisions are informed by the state’s shared culture, its religious background and its political sensibilities.

One of the most compelling reasons to support a repeal of the death penalty is the case of former Marine Kirk Bloodsworth. Bloodsworth was twice convicted of the brutal sexual assault and murder of a 9-year-old girl in Rosedale in 1984. His original death sentence was converted to a double life term after his retrial in 1987, and he served eight years in prison before being released in 1993 after post-conviction DNA testing. In 2003, a DNA database identified another man (who was already in prison) as the killer. That man, Kimberly Shay Ruffner, pleaded guilty in 2004.

In 2009, Maryland instituted new rules that limited the possibility of death penalty sentences. These required that DNA evidence, videotape of the crime or a videotaped, voluntary confession be present. Of course, this system is flawed as well — videos can be doctored, confessions can come under duress and DNA experts can be wrong.

This is why a codified repeal is so critical.

Those on both sides concede that our criminal justice system is imperfect. That alone is enough merit to not engage in state-ordered executions — it is incumbent that our society do all it can to protect the innocent.

What’s important to recognize, however, is that in making that choice, Marylanders are indeed giving up valuable practices. Take, for instance, a hardened inmate serving a life sentence. Without the death penalty as a deterrent, there is little to inhibit this person from killing a fellow inmate or a guard. In these types of cases, the state is also deprived of any meaningful opportunity for retribution.

There’s also the complex question of retribution. When a loved one is taken too soon at the hands of another, there is never a way to make survivors whole. But could executing the murderer provide some solace for grieving family members? Perhaps, and that’s no small point given that families whose lives have been shattered deserve serious consideration when it comes to an appropriate punishment.

As the state moves forward and its residents live under different rules regarding criminals and how they are punished, thinking on this issue may evolve. For now, however, Maryland must not abdicate its duty to protect those who are wrongly convicted.