Will Maryland Case Buck Anti-Death Penalty Trend?

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Wesley Allen Rollins, 55, goes to court today in Baltimore facing a possible death sentence, the Baltimore Sun reports. A jury found him guilty in the murder of a white person, which studies say increases the chances of a death sentence. While Rollins denied smothering 71-year-old Irene Ebberts, he admitted burglarizing her home.

If Judge John Fader sends Rollins to death row, it will be contrary to a nationwide trend: a growing reluctance on the part of judges and juries to sentence defendants to death. “The most recent phenomenon is a decline in death sentences, and a decline in death rows across the country,” said Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center, a research group with an anti-death penalty tilt. “I think juries are hesitant, even when they find someone guilty, of giving the death penalty.”

Nationwide, the number of death sentences has dropped markedly. From 1995 to 1999, judges and juries handed out an average of 300 death sentences a year. In 2001, the number fell to 155, the center says. Death penalty advocates attribute much of that decline to a nationwide decrease in murders. Opponents of capital punishment say juries are simply rejecting a greater number of death sentences.

Supporters of capital punishment say the cumbersome appeals process and many reversals in death cases have lessened the number sought by prosecutors and imposed by judges or juries. The decline “may just reflect the frustration that the sentences are not being carried out,” said Kent S. Scheidegger of the California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports the death penalty.


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