Life-and-Death Issue

Rabbi Seth Bernstein signs a  letter calling for the end of capital punisment in Maryland. The letter was then circulated through the Maryland General Assembly.
Rabbi Seth Bernstein signs a letter calling for the end of capital punisment in Maryland. The letter was then circulated through the Maryland General Assembly.

Rabbi Seth Bernstein said his understanding of Jewish law is that the preservation of human life takes precedent above all else.

The Howard County Board of Rabbis president believes this is true even for murderers. That is why Bernstein is among a growing list of religious leaders supporting Maryland officials in repealing the death penalty.

“The death penalty is not a deterrent for murder,” Bernstein said. “I’m not opposed to punishing those who kill, but the death penalty, even for the most heinous crimes, is not the answer. It doesn’t feel appropriate to take another life in response for the murder of another.”

Rabbi Bernstein was one of a diverse group of religious leaders who urged lawmakers earlier this month to
repeal capital punishment in Maryland. More than 300 leaders representing Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Lutherans, Presbyterians and others signed a letter calling for the end of the death penalty and circulated it
to all members of the Maryland General Assembly.

Opponents of Maryland’s death penalty, including the Howard and Baltimore boards of rabbis, believe
capital punishment is too expensive and has racial biases in its implementation.

In addition, many leaders have concerns over the possibility of accidentally executing an innocent person. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, there have been more than 140 death-row exonerations nationally since 1973.

Those arguments were among those made by death-penalty opponents last week during hearings at the Maryland General Assembly. Leading the charge for the abolition of capital punishment in Maryland was Gov. Martin O’Malley. The Democrat has made repealing the death penalty one of his top social legislative priorities during the 2013 session. O’Malley outlined his concerns during last month’s State of the State address.

“There is no such thing as a foolproof death penalty,” said O’Malley during his Feb. 14 testimony in front of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “And there is no way to reverse our ‘mistake’ if we execute an innocent person …

“The death penalty does not make us stronger or more secure as a people. Nor does the death penalty make our laws more effective or more just. Capital punishment is expensive, it does not work, and we should replace it with life without parole.”

Support Still There

While repealing the death penalty has gained traction in Annapolis, there is still considerable support for capital punishment on both sides of the fence. This includes Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger.

A Democrat, Shellenberger said there needs to be an option for the death penalty for those who commit the most atrocious acts, including the killing of a correctional officer or a police officer, or in the unfortunate instance that Maryland would be home to a mass killing similar to that in Aurora, Colo., or Newtown, Conn.

“There are some acts that are so heinous that the death penalty should be considered as a potential punishment,” Shellenberger said, noting he respects the rights of others to disagree with him.
Maryland has five defendants sitting on death row, including three who have avoided executions for 30 years. The state has not executed anyone since 2005 when Wesley Baker was put to death for the 1991 murder of Jane Tyson, a grandmother. Tyson was shot and killed during an armed robbery in Catonsville in front of her 6-year-old granddaughter and 4-year-old grandson.

Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, a Democrat, has supported the death penalty in the past but said he will not get involved in the debate this time around.

“The Attorney General will not be actively participating in the death-penalty debate in 2013,” said Gansler’s spokesman David Paulson.

Paulson also noted that Gansler never sought the death penalty during his eight years as Montgomery County’s state’s attorney.

“His focus will remain that if we continue to have the death penalty in Maryland, that it be administered in a fair, race-neutral and socioeconomically neutral manner,” Paulson said.

Tight Restrictions Enough

Maryland has executed five men since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. But in 2009, the state established some of the most stringent policies in the country for prosecutors seeking the death penalty. Those restrictions limit capital cases to those with biological or DNA evidence, a videotaped confession or a video recording of the defendant committing the offense.

It is those restrictions that led the Baltimore Jewish Council to craft a policy statement last year in support of Maryland’s death penalty as it is currently constituted. The carefully-worded statement came after months of consultation from rabbis representing all sections of the local Jewish community, said Cailey Locklair, BJC’s director of government relations.

“Judaism values life so highly that there must be the utmost caution and safeguards in place,” Locklair said. “Maryland moved to implement safeguards and now has one of the strictest death-penalty guidelines in the country. … There are definitely differing opinions [on the death penalty] within the Jewish community. But, our job is to find a consensus.”

Shellenberger agrees that the state’s current capital punishment statute minimizes the chances of executing an innocent person but calls the guidelines “artificial.”

“In what other cases do you have the legislative branch tell the judicial branch what specific type of evidence it needs to make its case,” Shellenberger said. “Right now, I understand there’s no moving back to where we were 10 years ago. All I want to do is protect the law we have now.”

Baltimore County has only sought the death penalty twice since the new restrictions were put in place. Both cases centered on the 2010 murder of Hess gas station owner William “Ray” Porter. The first was Walter Bishop, who received life without parole in November 2011 after being found guilty of shooting Porter twice outside a Towson gas station. Bishop told pol-ice he shot Porter after being offered $9,000 from Porter’s wife, Karla. Shellenberger said he is seeking the death penalty against Porter.

Yes or No?

How Marylanders feel about the death penalty

49 — Percentage of Marylanders in 2013 who support it

56 — Percentage of Marylanders in 2011 who supported it

44 — Percentage of Marylanders in 2013 who oppose it

39 — Percentage of Marylanders in 2011 who opposed it

61 — Percentage of Marylanders in 2013 who agreed life without parole is an acceptable alternative to the death penalty

Source: Phone survey by the Annapolis-based Gonzales Research of 801 Maryland voters.

Ron Snyder is a JT staff reporter —

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