Maryland

Maryland

50 Years After Historic Confirmation to Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall's Legacy Continues To Shape Future

Fifty years ago today, Thurgood Marshall (pictured) was confirmed as the nation’s first African-American Supreme Court Justice. Marshall’s legacy is indelibly linked to his historic victory in 1954 as counsel in Brown v. Board of Education, breaking down the barriers of "separate but equal" segregated public education. But he is equally associated with his representation of capital defendants in racially charged cases in the Jim Crow South and his longstanding belief—first articulated in a concurring opinion in the Court's landmark 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia striking down all existing death-penalty statutes—that "the death penalty is an excessive and unnecessary punishment that violates the Eighth Amendment." A grandson of slaves and a survivor of an attempted lynching by Tennessee police officers, Marshall devoted his life to ensuring that all people, irrespective of race, enjoyed the rights of full citizenship and the equal protection of the law. This inexorably drew him to the issues of lynching and capital punishment. Seven days after the Baltimore native received his law license in October 1933, a 23-year-old intellectually disabled black man, George Armwood, who had been in custody accused of the attempted assault and rape of an elderly white woman, was lynched in nearby Somerset County, Maryland. Marshall was one of ten lawyers to petition the governor seeking anti-lynching legislation and call for an investigation into state police involvement in the lynching. Marshall won his first Supreme Court case in 1940, arguing Chambers v. Florida, which established that coerced confessions obtained by police through duress and violence are inadmissible at trial. That year, he founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and served as its first Director-Counsel, representing numerous black defendants charged with crimes in Southern courts. In 1941, Marshall represented W.D. Lyons, an illiterate 21-year-old black sharecropper beaten into confessing to murdering a white family and burning down their home. Enduring racial epithets from an initially hostile white community, Marshall subjected the police who had framed Lyons to withering cross-examination and showed that they had obviously lied on the stand. Lyons was convicted and—after the U.S. Supreme Court denied his appeal—executed, but historians say the case awakened Marshall to the ability of lawyers to empower oppressed communities. Later, Marshall won retrials for three young African-American men who had been falsely accused of raping a 17-year-old white woman in Lake County, Florida. Two of the "Groveland Four" (a fourth young man charged in the case had been lynched by a white mob after escaping from custody) were wrongly sentenced to death; one of them was murdered and the other shot several times by a sheriff while being transported to their retrial. The surviving defendant was convicted and resentenced to death, but received a last-minute commutation. The third defendant—who was 16 at the time—received a life sentence. In April 2017, the Florida legislature issued an apology for the killings and wrongful convictions and asked Governor Rick Scott to issue posthumous pardons for the four. In November 1946, Marshall nearly was murdered. Tennessee law enforcement intercepted his car and placed him in the back of an unmarked car after he had won an acquittal for one of 25 black man charged with riot and attempted murder in the wake of local racial violence. They drove him down isolated roads and, Marshall later said, "were taking me down to the river where all of the white people were waiting to do a little bit of lynching." A white lawyer and a white journalist saw the abduction and followed the unmarked car, foiling the lynching. The Legal Defense Fund won acquittals in 23 of the 25 Tennessee riot cases. Marshall wrote in his concurrence in Furman that "[i]t is evident ... that the burden of capital punishment falls upon the poor, the ignorant and the underprivileged members of society." He firmly believed that the public would do away with the punishment if they understood the facts of how the death penalty actually was applied. The question for him in Furman was "not whether a substantial proportion of American citizens would today, if polled, opine that capital punishment is barbarously cruel, but whether they would find it to be so in the light of all information presently available.”

"Bloodsworth: An Innocent Man" Premieres

A new film, "Bloodsworth: An Innocent Man," premieres on August 13. The movie, described as a "documentary memoir," tells the story of Kirk Bloodsworth, an innocent man sentenced to death in Maryland who became the first death row prisoner in the United States to be exonerated by DNA evidence. Bloodsworth was convicted and sent to death row in 1985 for the sexual assault and murder of a 9-year-old girl. He won a new trial as a result of prosecutorial misconduct, but was convicted again and this time sentenced to life. He was exonerated in 1993 by newly available DNA testing. After his exoneration, Bloodsworth became active in efforts to reform the criminal justice system and his case became symbolic of the innocence movement and the risks of wrongfully convicting and executing the innocent. In 2004, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the Kirk Noble Bloodsworth Post Conviction DNA Testing Program, which gives states grants for post-conviction DNA testing. As a result of his experiences, Bloodsworth became a strong opponent of the death penalty and was instrumental in Maryland's 2013 repeal of the death penalty. That legislative battleground provides the backdrop for the film's exploration of the events leading to his exoneration.The film's first preview screening is in Baltimore, Maryland. A second preview screening will take place in Boise, Idaho on September 25, and the film will be released soon after.

Maryland Governor Will Commute Sentences of Remaining Death Row Inmates

On December 31, 2014, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley announced he will commute the sentences of the four men remaining on the state's death row to life without parole. O'Malley signed Maryland's death penalty repeal bill into law in 2013, but the repeal was not retroactive. In a statement, O'Malley said, "Recent appeals and the latest opinion on this matter by Maryland’s Attorney General have called into question the legality of carrying out earlier death sentences — sentences imposed prior to abolition. In fact, the Attorney General has opined that the carrying out of prior sentences is now illegal in the absence of an existing statute." Prior to announcing the commutations, O'Malley met with family members of the murder victims in the cases related to the four death row inmates. He called the "un-ending legal process" of the death penalty an "additional torment" on the families of murder victims. He said, "Gubernatorial inaction — at this point in the legal process — would, in my judgment, needlessly and callously subject survivors, and the people of Maryland, to the ordeal of an endless appeals process, with unpredictable twists and turns, and without any hope of finality or closure."

EDITORIALS: Maryland Governor Should Commute Remaining Death Sentences

In a recent editorial, the Washington Post urged Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley to commute the sentences of the four men remaining on the state's death row, saying, "To carry out executions post-repeal would be both cruel, because the legislation underpinning the sentence has been scrapped, and unusual, because doing so would be historically unprecedented." Maryland is one of three states that have repealed the death penalty prospectively but still have inmates on death row. The others are Connecticut and New Mexico. O'Malley, who is leaving office in January, was a supporter of repeal. Maryland Attorney Douglas Gansler, who opposed repeal, recently said that carrying out an execution in Maryland is, "illegal and factually impossible." The editorial concluded, "In signing the abolition of capital punishment into law last year, [O'Malley] was unequivocal: 'It’s wasteful. It’s ineffective. It doesn’t work to reduce violent crime.' Having made the moral case for abolition so eloquently, he should have no trouble making the practical case for commutation to life without parole for the four remaining condemned men. And he should act without further delay." Read the editorial below.

Maryland Attorney General Asks Court to Vacate Death Sentences

On November 6, Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler (pictured) filed a brief with an appellate court, formally requesting that the death sentence of Jody Lee Miles be vacated. Gansler argued that Miles's death sentence is no longer valid. Miles was convicted and sentenced to death in 1998. In 2006, Maryland's Court of Appeals suspended executions because the state's lethal injection procedures had not been lawfully implemented. In 2013, the state repealed the death penalty for future offenses. Upon repeal, Miles filed a motion to have his sentence changed to life in prison without parole, arguing that the repeal should apply to him, too. However, the appellate court rejected the argument, stating that the repeal only applied to future convictions. Gansler's motion contended that the absence of an execution protocol rendered an execution in Maryland a "legal and factual impossibility." He requested that Miles's death sentence be changed to life in prison without parole, and he noted that a decision on this motion would leave the door "wide open" for challenges from the other three defendants on Maryland's death row.

DPIC Releases 2013 Report, Showing Marked Decline in Death Penalty Use

On December 19, the Death Penalty Information Center released its annual report on the latest developments in capital punishment, "The Death Penalty in 2013: Year End Report." In 2013, executions declined, fewer states imposed death sentences, and the size of death row decreased compared to the previous year. The number of states with the death penalty also dropped, and public support for capital punishment registered a 40-year low. There were 39 executions in the U.S., marking only the second time in 19 years that there were less than 40. Just two states, Texas (16) and Florida (7), were responsible for 59% of the executions. The number of death sentences (80) remained near record lows, and several major death penalty states, inclucing Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Louisiana, imposed no death sentences this year. Maryland became the sixth state in six years to abolish capital punishment. “Twenty years ago, use of the death penalty was increasing. Now it is declining by almost every measure,” said Richard Dieter, DPIC’s Executive Director and the author of the report. “The recurrent problems of the death penalty have made its application rare, isolated, and often delayed for decades. More states will likely reconsider the wisdom of retaining this expensive and ineffectual practice.”

RECENT LEGISLATION: Maryland Death Penalty Will Not Face Referendum

Maryland’s death penalty repeal legislation will take effect as scheduled on October 1, 2013 after its opponents were unsuccessful in securing the number of signatures required to put the issue on the November 2014 ballot. Efforts to put Maryland’s death penalty to a statewide vote were led by Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger and a group called MDPetitions.com. On May 31, the group announced that it only collected about 15,000 signatures, falling short of the 18,579 signatures required in order to proceed. If the group had met the initial deadline, they would have had until June 30th to collect more than 37,000 signatures from registered voters in order to place the referendum on the November 2014 ballot. "To be reaffirmed by the public, and know that justice is served, is wonderful," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore), who supported the repeal bill, "This is the most profound thing I will ever do." On May 2, Maryland became the sixth state in six years to abandon capital punishment when Governor Martin O'Malley signed the repeal bill into law.

Former Death Row Inmates Are Ambassadors of Change

A recent article in The Nation by David Love, the Director of Witness to Innocence, underscored the important role of people like Kirk Bloodsworth and Shujaa Graham (pictured), who were once on death row and now have been freed. These and many of the 140 other people who have been exonerated from death row have traveled the country, speaking to legislators, students, church groups, and the general public about the risks of executions. Bloodsworth's efforts in Maryland have received wide attention. Shujaa Graham, also a Maryland resident, was exonerated from death row in California after the state Supreme Court overturned his death sentence because the prosecutor had excluded African Americans from his jury. He was later acquitted in a re-trial. Both Bloodsworth and Graham recently attended the signing of the death-penalty repeal bill in Maryland.

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