Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Maryland and the death penalty

The state of Maryland took a very interesting step today regarding its death penalty. The state passed a law restricting the death penalty only to cases in which there is a videotaped confession or biological, DNA, or videotape evidence "conclusively" linking the defendant to the murder. I am incredibly curious to see how this will play out.

I think the general public might soon see just how few cases involve things as clear and easy as a videotape of the crime. I have never seen a case that involves one of these mythical videotapes that conclusively shows the crime and clearly reveals the perpetrator. There may be surveillance video tapes that show a car or a person in the area of the crime, but those are usually grainy and from downward angles that make identification of the person less than crystal clear. DNA evidence that conclusively proves the defendant's guilt is also not a very frequent occurrence. Over half of my murder cases don't involve DNA.

But what I'm really curious to see is how will courts, prosecutors, and juries define "conclusively." Say there's a convenience store killing where there is surveillance video, but the video is grainy. The guy on that video could be the defendant, but it's pretty tough to say that it couldn't also be the defendant's brother or 20 other guys. How clear does that video have to be for it to be "conclusive" evidence? And DNA evidence. Even in cases where DNA evidence is present, it's not often "conclusive" proof that the defendant is the murderer. Say the defendant's DNA is on the weapon, but we knew that the weapon belonged to the defendant. Well, then the presence of the defendant's DNA on that weapon isn't very unexpected, is it? Or perhaps the defendant's DNA isn't the only DNA present at the scene or is entirely consistent with the defendant's innocent explanation. There really are very few cases in which DNA evidence proves a defendant's guilt. More often than not, it proves nothing beyond what we already knew from witness statements or that the defendant was at a place we knew he would be.

So I applaud Maryland for severely restricting application of its death penalty, as I would applaud any limitation on state-sanctioned murder. But I hope this particular restriction will show the public that it's a myth to think we really can find cases where there is some magical video or DNA evidence that "conclusively" shows the defendant's guilt.


R said...

Any law that restricts or prohibits state sanctioned murder is fine with me - no matter how convoluted it is.


mikeb302000 said...

I agree with R. I wondered while reading the post if Maryland wants to restrict themselves right out of the game. That would be fine with me too.

S said...

I agree. The fewer death sentences the better. And, heck, this particular statute might be so convoluted that it will give lawyers like me so much fodder for litigation, they'll never get anyone sentenced.

I, perhaps vainly, hope that Maryland's restriction will make those throughout the country who are ok with the death penalty when there's "conclusive" proof of guilt understand how infrequently that kind of proof exists.

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