March 1, 2007
Death penalty moratorium takes political courage
By Michael Tackett, Post Bulletin
WASHINGTON -- While Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were engaged in
the first official hissy fit (the technical term) of the 2008 presidential
campaign, another Democrat was actually engaged in a matter of important
Just to recap: Clinton was furious because Hollywood mogul David Geffen
ridiculed her and former President Bill Clinton in an interview with Maureen
Dowd of The New York Times on the very day that Geffen was hosting a
fundraiser for Obama that reportedly brought $1.3 million to his campaign.
Before his conversion to Obama, Geffen had raised about $18 million for the
The spat led to several days of coverage in a not-so-deep search for deeper
meaning about the state of the race and the state of the Clintons, which, by
the way, undoubtedly will be the campaign's ongoing soap opera subtext.
Meanwhile, across the country in Annapolis, Md., another public drama was
playing out, and in this case, the stakes were not money, but life and
Martin O'Malley, the youthful new governor, made an emotional plea to a
state Senate committee to repeal the death penalty in Maryland.
That is one long march from the scene at a 1988 presidential debate when
Michael Dukakis was pilloried for giving a lawyerly answer to a hypothetical
question about whether he would impose the death penalty on a man who had
raped and murdered his wife. Dukakis' dispassionate rejection of capital
punishment became a ready emblem for the Republican narrative that Democrats
were soft on crime.
From that point on, most Democrats with higher ambitions rushed to be seen
as state-sanctioned Grim Reapers. None did it with as much flourish as
then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who jetted back to his state just before
the New Hampshire primary to preside over the execution of Ricky Ray Rector,
a brain-damaged man who told prison officials he wanted to save the dessert
from his last meal until after his execution.
Few Democrats since have been willing to take forceful public action that
would make it appear as if they were not tough on criminals. In fact, it was
not until a Republican, former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, imposed a
moratorium on the death penalty that any movement to repeal capital
punishment statutes gained significant traction. In fact, O'Malley cited
during his testimony the 18 Death Row inmates who have been released in
Illinois after their innocence was proved.
O'Malley has been on the short list of rising Democratic stars for several
years. Telegenic, smart and the leader of his own Irish band, O'Malley's
March, he was mayor of Baltimore before being elected governor last
November. Before that, he had been chosen to speak at the Democratic
National Convention in 2004 and fortunately for him, in a very forgettable
time slot, given a delivery that dripped with emotion far more than
His push to repeal the death penalty is perhaps his highest-profile move
since taking office, and one that carries abundant political risk,
particularly because he is seen as a politician with national ambitions.
But on this issue, O'Malley is resolutely righteous, making a moral and
theological argument as much as a political or legal one to support his
thesis that the death penalty is neither a "just punishment" nor an
"effective deterrent" to murder.
"Notwithstanding the executions of the rightly convicted, can the death
penalty ever be justified, then, as public policy when it inherently
necessitates the occasional taking of a wrongly convicted and innocent
life?" he said. "Is any one of us willing to sacrifice a member of our own
family -- wrongly convicted, sentenced and executed -- in order to secure
the execution of five rightly convicted murderers? And even if we were,
could that public policy be called 'just'? I believe it cannot."
He was just getting wound up.
"Individual human dignity is the concept that leads brave individuals to
sacrifice their own lives for the lives of strangers," O'Malley said.
"Individual human dignity is the truth universal that is the basis of all
ethics. Individual human dignity is the fundamental belief upon which all
laws of this state and this republic are founded. And absent a deterrent
value, I truly believe that the damage done by our conscious communal use of
the death penalty to the concept of human dignity is greater than the
benefit of even a justly drawn retribution.
It was a gutsy approach, even in a heavily Democratic state. And O'Malley
will find out if his risk is rewarded. Maybe Geffen would bankroll the
Source : Post Bulletin (Michael Tackett is the Chicago Tribune's Washington
Bureau chief. His e-mail address is mtacket@ttribune.