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Editorial: Positive trend on death penalty

** FILE ** Rolando Cruz former death row inmate pardoned by Gov. George Ryan December 2002 is seen an Illinois

** FILE ** Rolando Cruz, a former death row inmate pardoned by Gov. George Ryan in December 2002, is seen at an Illinois Prisoner Review Board hearing in Springfield, Ill., Nov. 15, 2002. On Monday, June 30, 2003, an arrest warrant was issued by a Livingston County judge for Cruz who failed to appear in court in Pontiac, Ill., on a driving under the influence charge stemming from a traffic stop in Dwight in May. (AP Photo/Randy Squires)

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Updated: April 18, 2013 6:42AM

When Maryland lawmakers approved a measure abolishing the death penalty on Friday — a bill expected to be signed by the governor — it further cemented a trend away from capital punishment around the country.

Six states in six years have abolished the death penalty, and none has added it. If the governor does sign the bill, Maryland will be the 18th state to abandon executions.

Even in states that still have the death penalty, there are fewer executions and fewer occupants of Death Row. In the ’90s, there were as many as 300 death sentences a year around the country. Last year, there were 78.

This is a trend in the right direction. Not only has the death penalty historically been applied arbitrarily, but also many innocent people were sentenced to death. We hope the number of executions continues to drop until they become just a lamentable part of our history.

Illinois was pivotal in changing public views of the death penalty. In the 1990s, the death penalty was on the rise. New York and Kansas had legalized capital punishment. Politicians routinely called for expanding the array of crimes that could qualify for capital punishment.

But starting with the cases of Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez — innocent men who were unfairly sentenced to death for the murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico — and the so-called Ford Heights Four, Illinois courts began a string of Death Row exonerations based on innocence.

“Illinois played a strong role with a flurry of cases in the 1990s,” Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said Friday. “It opened people’s eyes, and that has caused ripple effects through the system.”

Around the country, courts are taking more time to get death penalty cases right, which means cases are more expensive and more frustrating. Also, we’ve learned many of the standards courts rely on — confessions, eyewitness testimony and circumstantial evidence — aren’t as reliable as we thought.

Maryland is making the right move. Other states should follow.

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