State moves to accelerate executions Md. officials seek to curb appeals by death row inmates

'Come to a grinding halt'

If test cases succeed, 3 men on death row may be executed soon

September 14, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Maryland, taking the lead among states that want to speed up executions, is moving to cut off any more court challenges by at least three Maryland death row inmates.

If the state succeeds in a variety of test cases unfolding in several courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, prompt executions could be scheduled for convicted murderers Wesley Eugene Baker, John Marvin Booth and Steven Howard Oken.

The cases of at least two other death row prisoners, Kenneth Lloyd Collins and Tyrone Delano Gilliam Jr., could be affected quickly by the state's efforts. Eventually, all who are sentenced to death in Maryland could feel the impact.

Attempts by inmates to challenge their convictions and death sentences "will come to a grinding halt" across Maryland, said Assistant Public Defender Gary W. Christopher of Baltimore, if their attorneys have to meet the accelerated deadlines that the state is seeking to impose under a year-old federal law.

Christopher, who represents Baker, and other defense lawyers have been arguing that the state is not entitled to invoke those deadlines because it does not meet the condition the federal law sets: firm assurances that death row inmates will have competent lawyers to pursue their cases.

The state disputes that. "Maryland's position," said Assistant Attorney General Gwynn X. Kinsey Jr., "is that it, in fact, complies with the statutory requirements for application of this new federal law relating to the death penalty."

In the only ruling so far on the merits of the dispute, Chief U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz of Baltimore sided last year with the inmates, concluding that the state's system for assigning lawyers to death row inmates is inadequate. But a federal appeals court overturned Motz's ruling on a procedural ground six months later in a decision that left the basic issue unsettled.

U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte of Greenbelt will conduct a hearing tomorrow in Oken's case, opening a new round of courtroom encounters triggered by the law.

Within the next few weeks, Baker's and Gilliam's cases will raise similar issues in other federal courts, and the Supreme Court is likely to take some action by acting on a pending appeal by

inmates Baker, Booth, Oken, Collins and Gilliam.

Other states also are taking steps to speed their death penalty processes, but their efforts have not moved as rapidly as Maryland's.

California's efforts, for example, have been stymied by a federal appeals court ruling that the state cannot invoke the new, shorter deadlines in capital cases.

The law at the center of the controversy was designed to significantly shorten the time between an individual's sentencing and execution.

Under prior procedures, inmates were often able to postpone execution for years by pursuing repeated challenges, first in state courts and then in federal courts. Booth's case, for example, has gone to the Supreme Court four times; he was initially sentenced to death 13 years ago for the fatal stabbing of an elderly couple in West Baltimore.

Maryland's most recent execution was July 2, when Flint Gregory Hunt was put to death by lethal injection, nearly 12 years after killing Baltimore police Officer Vincent J. Adolfo.

Congress, dealing last year with federal court challenges by death row inmates, adopted strict deadlines for filing such lawsuits, reduced the inmates' legal options in pursuing those cases and put the proceedings on a fast track with short deadlines for courts to act.

But those deadlines do not go into effect automatically. A state can insist that the deadlines be met only if it first shows that it has a system in place for providing free and professionally competent lawyers to handle inmates' death penalty challenges after their initial appeal in state court.

Motz, in ruling against Maryland on that point in October, said that the state has not laid down standards for competency of such lawyers and that its existing system of selecting and paying court-appointed lawyers does not ensure that competent lawyers can be found to defend inmates who cannot afford their own attorneys.

But in April, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Motz's decision, ruling that Maryland and its officials are immune under the Constitution to a combined lawsuit by five inmates claiming that the state does not qualify under the 1996 law.

Each inmate can raise that point only in case-by-case challenges, the appeals court ruled. The five inmates have taken their case to the Supreme Court, asking the justices to bar the state from invoking the law's deadlines and other limitations against any Maryland inmate's court challenge.

The justices may take some action on that appeal this month or early next month.

In the meantime, the state, relying on the 1996 law, is contending that federal judges must dismiss pending individual challenges made by Oken, Baker and Booth because they failed to meet the new law's filing deadline -- a move that presumably would permit the early scheduling of their executions.

Messitte will consider the state's plea in Oken's case tomorrow, and U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson of Baltimore will consider it in Baker's case early next month. Booth's case is on hold in federal court. Collins and Gilliam met the filing deadline but may not be able to satisfy other restrictions under the new law, lawyers for the state say.

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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