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March 15, 2007

Maryland's Death Penalty: To Ban or Not

John W. Ashbury

(Sometime today, Frederick County Senator Alex X. Mooney will cast the deciding vote in the Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on a bill to ban the death penalty in Maryland. What follows is an open letter to the senator.)

Dear Senator Mooney:

Perhaps not one of your constituents, who isn't doing so in any official capacity, can claim to have witnessed an execution. I did so in June 1961 when I was a reporter for The Sun in Baltimore. The prisoner's name was Nathaniel Lipscomb. He had been convicted of the rape and murder of three nurses at Mercy Hospital, as I recall.

Lipscomb had a fascination with sleeping children. While living in North Carolina he would break into homes where he knew children lived and stand over their crib or bed and just watch them sleep. He never harmed a child.

On one occasion he was surprised by the child's mother and he killed her. He was arrested, and because of his mental condition, he was sent to a state hospital for evaluation. Officials there released him without notifying the arresting agency and he fled the state.

Under a fairly recent Supreme Court ruling, Lipscomb would not have been executed because his IQ was less than 60. He was a huge man - perhaps 6 foot 6 inches and 300 lbs. When the cyanide was dropped into the sulfuric acid, he took a deep breath and was rendered unconscious, although his heart beat for another 12 or 13 minutes.

It was a painful experience to observe. And I have never - nor will I ever - forgotten it.

However, while I do agree that limitation need to be made on executions, I do not believe it should be banned totally. And perhaps the protocols for the lethal injection methods need revision. I don't know what they were when the Court of Appeals rendered its decision late last year. So what tweaking is necessary is beyond my knowledge.

However, I strongly believe that certain crimes cry out for the death penalty. For example, if a prisoner in a Maryland facility, who is serving life without the possibility of parole, kills a correctional officer, what would be the penalty? We can't keep him in prison when his first sentence is completed. Thus there would be no penalty for such a crime if the death penalty is abolished.

Then, there are the police officers who are killed while in the performance of their duties. The recent case of the Baltimore City officer, who was entering his home (or that of his girlfriend) not too long ago and was shot and killed by someone attempting to rob him, would not be a proper case for the death penalty. The suspect was unaware that the man was a police officer as he was in street clothes. But there are cases when an officer gives up his life for my protection and that of the rest of the citizens of this state.

My third example in which the death penalty should be applied is the rape and murder of a child. Of course, an age limit would have to be established. But there can be no more heinous crime in my opinion. And I will never have any sympathy for such a criminal - his/her family, yes, but not the perpetrator.

I also have been informed by friends, who have relatives within Maryland's correctional facilities, that more than half of the officers in those prisons will resign - or take early retirement - if the death penalty is banned. What cost would that add to the state's budget? And how would we replace them? Would new men and women want to be put into a situation where they could be killed and the perpetrator would not face any further punishment?

I hope that you will vote against any bill before you in the committee, or on the floor of the Senate, that does not allow for the death penalty to be applied in these cases. Despite my respect for your heart-felt religious beliefs, there comes a time when the sanctity of our society outweighs the moral obligations instilled in us by our faith.

Few bills come before the General Assembly which will have such a far reaching impact on the welfare of those we hire to "protect and serve" the public. And who can accept the death of a child at the hands of a sexual predator? Then again, those who assault children frequently face far greater perils at the hands of their fellow prisoners.

You have now served almost nine full General Assembly sessions as a senator, and I believe this is the first time I have asked you directly to consider my opinion in a matter before the legislature. I believe the facts about Lipscomb presented above are correct. But it has been more than 45 years since that event shaped my thinking on capital punishment.

Anyway, I hope you will make the "correct" decision. I didn't want to use the word "right" because it can be so misconstrued.

Good luck. And remember your constituents and their safety and welfare.


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