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Md death penalty { May 10 2002 }

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Maryland Suspends Death Penalty
Glendening Awaits Report on Racial Bias In Murder Prosecutions

By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 10, 2002; Page A01

Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening declared a moratorium on executions yesterday, sparing, for now, the life of a Baltimore area killer and making Maryland the second state, after Illinois, to suspend the death penalty because of doubts about its fairness.

Glendening (D) announced his decision after reviewing a clemency request from Wesley Eugene Baker, 44, who had been scheduled to die next week for murdering a woman in front of her grandchildren during a purse-snatching in 1991.

Glendening said he did not reach a conclusion about the soundness of Baker's conviction. Unlike Illinois Gov. George Ryan (R), who declared a moratorium two years ago after several death row inmates were exonerated and freed, Glendening said he was not motivated primarily by issues of innocence.

Instead, Glendening said, he was troubled by concerns "in Maryland and across the country" about the fairness of a process that disproportionately selects black killers of white victims for society's ultimate punishment. Over the next few months, Glendening faced the prospect of executing five men, four of them blacks who had killed whites.

Those concerns prompted Glendening two years ago to commission a study of murder prosecutions for evidence of racial bias. Until that study is released in September and reviewed by the General Assembly, Glendening said, he decided that no one else should die.

"We now have several cases coming before us in which the crimes have been very vicious. . . . The evidence does appear to be quite strong," Glendening said during a news conference at the State House in Annapolis. "But there is a logical inconsistency to say we're reviewing the fairness and justice of the death penalty process and, in the meantime, we're going to execute."

Glendening said most of those cases have been wending through state and federal courts for most of a decade.

"A maximum of one more year delay to make absolutely certain -- not just for me or any other governor, but for the public -- that this is a fair process, I think, is a reasonable thing to do," he said. "People have raised a serious question. We ought to pause, review it and make 100 percent sure that there is no error, bias or injustice in our system."

The family of Baker's victim, Jane Tyson, 49, declined to comment on Glendening's announcement. But news of the moratorium outraged Betty Romano, whose daughter's killer, Steven Oken, was next in line to die.

"It's so unfair when somebody can commit a murder, a panel of 12 jurors can sentence him to death, and the government bends over backward to keep him alive," Romano said.

Baltimore County Assistant State's Attorney Ann Brobst, who prosecuted both Baker and Oken, said, "I feel horrible for the families." Maryland's leaders should decide, "Do we want this penalty or do we not?" Brobst said. "Because we can't subject the victims, who have been through an indescribable loss, to this kind of process."

Glendening's action, meanwhile, drew praise from death penalty opponents, many of whom had feared that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 would steal momentum from their movement. Amnesty International, the Roman Catholic Church and U.S. Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), sponsor of a bill to halt executions nationwide, were among those who applauded Glendening's decision, calling it an important step on the path to a national reconsideration of the morality of state-sponsored executions.

"After 9-11, in another part of the country, to have a governor of a different party say, 'I can't let this go forward,' it's the beginning of a snowball effect that can help pass a national moratorium," Feingold said. "The system is broken, and I think people really know that."

Maryland is hardly an enthusiastic practitioner of the death penalty. Three people have been executed since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978, and 13 are currently sentenced to die. In 2000, Glendening commuted the death sentence of a Baltimore man on the strength of an extraordinarily sympathetic interpretation of the evidence against him.

Still, the Maryland moratorium has national significance, said Austin Sarat, a professor of political science and law at Amherst College and author of "When the State Kills: Capital Punishment and the American Condition."

"These are moments of rupture. They haven't happened yet in Texas or Oklahoma or Mississippi or Virginia," where most of the nation's executions occur, Sarat said. "But they are cracks in the fissure of what seemed five years ago to be a tremendously solid wall of support for the death penalty."

The decision marks a change of heart for Glendening, who had firmly rejected calls from black lawmakers and religious leaders to halt executions. In the past, Glendening said he saw no need to declare a moratorium because he personally reviewed the case of each death row inmate for evidence of innocence or racial bias.

Last week, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the Democratic frontrunner to replace Glendening, urged him to halt executions. Yesterday, Townsend and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a potential challenger for the Democratic nomination, applauded Glendening's decision. U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the likely Republican nominee, criticized the governor, saying the moratorium is devastating for victims' families.

Glendening said his views changed over the past year as concerns mounted about the fairness of the death penalty nationally. Last month, an Illinois commission appointed by Ryan recommended broad reform of capital punishment in the state, with some members saying they are not sure the system can ever be just. In Arizona, Ray Krone became the 100th person freed from death row since the restoration of the death penalty after DNA evidence proved him innocent of the crime for which he was convicted.

In Maryland, Kirk Bloodsworth served nine years, including time on death row, before he was freed on the strength of DNA evidence in 1993.

But mistaken convictions have been less of an issue in Maryland than race and geography. Of 13 men on Maryland's death row, nine are black, the highest proportion in the nation. Twelve of those on death row were condemned for killing white victims, though the vast majority of murder victims in the state are black.

Nine of the 13 were sentenced for crimes committed in Baltimore County, where prosecutors seek the death penalty for every crime that is eligible.

Yesterday, Glendening said, "The use of death penalty ought not to be a lottery of jurisdiction."

Glendening said he still believes strongly in the right of society to impose the "ultimate sanction" for crimes that "shock the conscience." He added, "My heart goes out to the families of the victims of these horrible crimes."

But, he said, "I must honor the responsibility that I have to be absolutely certain of both the guilt of the criminal and the fairness and impartiality of the process."

2002 The Washington Post Company

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