The rights of many criminal defendants are derived from the state and federal constitutions. Many of these rights have to do with procedural steps that must be followed in any criminal proceedings to ensure that the community members are treated fairly. For example, the well-known requirement to read people their Miranda rights upon arrest is rooted specifically in the federal constitution’s 5th Amendment prohibiting compelled self-incrimination. Similarly, all of the somewhat intricate rules about search and seizure requirements for police officers stem from legal challenges based on the federal constitution’s 4th Amendment.
However, beyond these procedural requirements, there are some instances where constitutional challenges related to criminal defendants deal with more substantive issues. The classic example of this involves the death penalty. At both the state and federal level, some attorneys have argued that use of the death penalty in all cases, for certain crimes, or for certain defendants, violated constitutional provisions. These legal challenges are somewhat different from other procedural challenges in that they seek to permanently end the ability of the state to commit execution–not just force the state to follow certain guidelines before doing so.
Maryland Death Penalty Challenge
In fact, just this week the Maryland Court of Appeals heard arguments in a case involving a man’s death row appeal. The defendant was sentenced to death following his conviction for killing a man during a robbery in 1998. His attorney is utilizing a novel argument in an effort to get the sentence reduced. In hearings conducted on Thursday, the attorney argued that the Maryland Constitution limits use of the death penalty only to cases involving treason.
As discussed in a recent article on the case, the criminal defense attorney made the argument that a portion of the Maryland Declaration of Rights places a limit on the interpretation of the death penalty in the state. A clause in the Declaration of Rights denounces “sanguinary laws” unless used to enhance the “safety of the state.” “Sanguinary” literally refers to actions involving violence and bloodshed. In the context of criminal law, it speaks to punishments of physical harm, under which the death penalty obviously falls. The attorney argued that the “safety of the state” only applies to things like suppressing rebellion, not any individual crime–no matter how heinous.
For their part, attorneys for the Maryland Attorney General’s office argued that the writers of the state constitution obviously intended capital punishment to be legal, as some of those writers became governor and signed death notices. They further noted that decades of case law suggest that there is no incongruity between use of the death penalty and the state constitution.
It is important to note the context in which this takes place. In 2006 the state high court found the procedural elements of the state capital punishment system lacking, putting a temporary halt to executions. The Governor has yet to suggest any alternative regulations, and executions cannot resume until that is done. No one has been executed in the state since 2005. On top of all of that there is a legislative push by some to permanently eliminate capital punishment in the state–an action which would make these courts proceedings moot.
Whatever the outcome, the battle over the death penalty in Maryland is yet another reminder of the complexity of many criminal law matters. If you are charged with a crime, be sure to get in touch with Brassel Alexander & Rice, LLC to defend your rights every step of the way.