May 10, 2002

Death Penalty Is Suspended in Maryland


(Associated Press)
Gov. Parris Glendening of Maryland announced a moratorium today on all executions for the remainder of his term.

Citing "reasonable questions" about the fairness of Maryland's death penalty, Gov. Parris N. Glendening ordered a moratorium on executions yesterday until a special study is completed into whether minority felons are unjustly singled out for capital punishment.

"It is imperative that I, as well as our citizens, have complete confidence that the legal process involved in capital cases is fair and impartial," said Mr. Glendening, a Democrat who is in his second term and backs capital punishment.

In his decision, Mr. Glendening acceded to a request last week for a moratorium by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Mrs. Townsend, a Democrat who is running to succeed Mr. Glendening, noted that the study on the death penalty was due to be completed in September and reviewed next year by the Legislature.

It would be "tough to have a report come out and say this wasn't fair, knowing that while the report was going on that people were executed," Mrs. Townsend said.

Mr. Glendening agreed that it would be "logically inconsistent" for the state to execute people while it studied the fairness of the process.

In announcing the moratorium, the governor issued a stay of execution to Wesley E. Baker, who had been scheduled for lethal injection next week after being convicted of murdering a woman in 1991 in a purse-snatching as she escorted her grandchildren to a shopping center.

Mr. Baker is one of nine blacks among the 13 men on Maryland's death row in cases in which all but one of the victims were white.

Critics of the death penalty in Maryland have long contended that race is a dominant factor in an unjust application of the law in capital cases that involve white victims and black criminals.

"We applaud the governor's decision," said Jane Henderson, co-director of the Quixote Center, a national organization based in Maryland that has been seeking state moratoriums on the death penalty.

"This is a good political move," said Ms. Henderson, speculating that Mrs. Townsend sensed as a candidate that the state Democratic Party's core constituency of urban and black voters had become increasingly sensitive to reports and doubts about the fairness of the death penalty in the 38 states that allow capital punishment.

Maryland is the second state to announce a moratorium on executions. Gov. George Ryan of Illinois suspended executions two years ago, citing investigative reports of multiple injustices. A study last month recommended more than 80 changes in Illinois procedures to guard against abuses.

The two-year Maryland study by specialists at the University of Maryland is focusing on several factors in researching whether racial bias affects the application of the death penalty.

Critics like the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty emphasize that although 28 percent of the Maryland population is African-American, blacks represent 70 percent of the death-row population and 80 percent of the murder victims. Yet in cases where prosecutors seek the death penalty, more than 90 percent of the victims have been white.

"Maryland has a higher concentration of African-Americans on death row than any other state in the country," Steven W. Hawkins, executive director of the coalition, said. "A system where race and geography play a vital role in who lives and who dies is a system that is irreparably broken."

In his announcement, Mr. Glendening said the state needed "absolute confidence in the integrity of the process."

"My heart goes out to the families of the victims of these horrible crimes," he said. "But I must honor the responsibility I have to be absolutely certain of both the guilt of the criminal and the fairness and impartiality of the process."

Nationally, nearly 7 out of 10 death penalty verdicts have been reversed in recent appellate reviews, and more than 100 innocent people have been exonerated, according to the Justice Project, a group that lobbies against wrongful executions.

Since capital punishment was re-established in 1976, Maryland has executed three men, two of them black, in the murders of three people, all white.

"I continue to believe that there are certain crimes that are so brutal and so vile that they call for society to impose the ultimate punishment," Mr. Glendening said in his announcement of the moratorium.

© Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company


Return to Index