Policy: Law

Maryland's top court to hear death penalty challenge

Local,Maryland,Crime,Rachel Baye,Law,State Courts,Death Penalty

Maryland's highest court is scheduled to hear a challenge to the state's death penalty law next week, just weeks before the state legislature is expected to weigh a ban on capital punishment.

The challenge was brought by attorneys for Jody Lee Miles, of Wicomico County, who was convicted of robbing and killing Salisbury theater manager Edward Atkinson in 1997.

Miles was sentenced to death in March 1998. He has brought a string of failed appeals since his sentencing, with the Maryland Court of Appeals upholding the sentence last year. In the latest appeal, slated for that court on Jan. 3, Miles' attorney is arguing that the state's death penalty law is illegal under the state constitution.

In a brief filed with the Court of Appeals, Miles' attorney Brian Saccenti points to Article 16 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights, which says that "sanguinary" laws should be avoided unless they enhance the safety of the state. "Sanguinary" laws generally refer to those considered "exceedingly cruel or gratuitous," said University of California, Berkeley, law professor Frank Zimring, a death penalty expert.

Saccenti argued that "the safety of the state" refers to the security of Maryland in the face of threats like rebellion, rather than public safety. And, he wrote, the death penalty is not effective in deterring crime, especially in a state like Maryland where it is used rarely.

But to assume that the framers of the Maryland Constitution never intended to legalize the death penalty means ignoring 34 years of state court decisions, Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler wrote in a brief. Gansler noted that a majority of the founders of the state's constitution "imposed the death penalty in Maryland as a proper punishment for a variety of crimes."

Miles is one of five death row inmates in Maryland. However, the state has not executed anyone since 2005. The state Court of Appeals ruled the state's regulations for administering the death penalty unconstitutional in 2006, and Gov. Martin O'Malley has not implemented new regulations, effectively putting a stop to executions.

O'Malley backed a failed effort to repeal capital punishment in 2009. He is rumored to be considering whether to fight for a repeal in the legislative session that begins Jan. 9, though spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said his office is not ready to announce anything.

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