Governor may face execution decisions

Racial overtones complicate cases

January 02, 2001|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening could have to decide in the next several months whether as many as four Maryland inmates should be executed, a delicate decision for a man who sponsored a study on whether the death penalty is being inequitably applied to blacks.

Wesley Baker, Vernon Evans, Anthony Grandison and Steven Oken - representing one-quarter of Maryland's death row population - all have exhausted their U.S. Circuit Court appeals and are petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their cases. Baker, Evans and Grandison are black, and Oken is white.

Glendening put $225,000 into this year's budget for a University of Maryland study on race and the state's death penalty. But he may be presented with the execution decisions before the study is completed.

"The governor is in a tough spot," says Del. William H. Cole, a member of the House Judiciary Committee in Annapolis who is pushing for a moratorium on executions at least until the study is finished. "I wish the governor would perhaps take a step back."

The state expects to file its response briefs with the Supreme Court later this month or in February, and the court is likely to begin ruling within a month or two after that - possibly before the General Assembly adjourns April 9.

If the high court refuses to hear a defendant's appeal, state lawyers will likely seek an execution warrant. If the judge signs it, the execution could occur within four to eight weeks, according to Gary Bair, who oversees capital cases for Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.

It is unusual for Maryland to have four cases coming up in the same year. "All four of them are fairly close together. It's a coincidence," Bair says.

Maryland has put to death three inmates since restoring capital punishment in 1978. Two of the execution warrants were approved by Glendening. The other, during the administration of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, was for murderer John Thanos, who refused to contest his death by lethal injection.

Glendening's chief spokesman says the governor, a death penalty supporter, won't be swayed by "a fluke of timing" that could result in a succession of executions in the new year.

"The timing doesn't enter into it. Politics isn't a factor," says spokesman Michael Morrill. "It wouldn't affect the standards he would use or how much time he would put in" to make a decision about a case, Morrill says. "He doesn't look at any cases until they come before him, and then he reads all of the material that is submitted to him."

Still, the possibility of a rash of executions lends immediacy to a debate with racial overtones.

"You would think this would cause a lot more scrutiny because it's four defendants and three out of the four are African-Americans," says William Purpura, an attorney for Baker.

All four are Baltimore County defendants. Baker, locked up in Baltimore's Supermax on East Madison Avenue, was sentenced by a Harford County judge in the 1991 fatal shooting of Jane Tyson at Westview Mall.

"Scrutiny is good," Purpura says. "You should scrutinize cases when you're dealing with life and death."

Maryland's death penalty faces other challenges unrelated to race.

The governor is being urged by Maryland's Catholic bishops to halt capital punishment on grounds that its use will continue to erode respect for life in society.

Opponents of the death penalty in Maryland also point to developments in states such as Illinois, where Gov. George Ryan ordered a moratorium on executions early last year pending a fairness review of the death penalty system. Ryan and others have expressed concern about recent examples of death row inmates being exonerated, sometimes due to new DNA technology.

"This would be the worst imaginable time for Maryland to proceed with the most executions in my lifetime," says Dwight Sullivan, managing attorney at the Baltimore office of the American Civil Liberties Union. Some of the four defendants' attorneys say they might pursue additional state-court appeals if the Supreme Court refuses to hear their cases.

Sullivan says he doesn't believe there is enough political support in Annapolis for a death penalty ban or moratorium. "So we're hoping the governor will take a fresh look at this, and do what the governor of Illinois did and say, `Stop.' This will come down to Parris Glendening and what he thinks is fair and what he thinks is just."

Morrill says Glendening would have no new comment on calls for a moratorium because his position is unchanged since he commuted the sentence in June of convicted murderer Eugene Colvin-El to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The governor said at the time that he backed the death penalty, but that the case against Colvin-El was not certain enough to warrant the ultimate punishment.

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