Time starting to run out on death penalty bills

Moratorium backers press for panel votes

March 22, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

As four men awaiting execution on Maryland's death row exhaust their appeals in the nation's highest court, state lawmakers who want a moratorium on capital punishment are quietly pressuring two legislative committees whose actions in coming days could determine whether these men live or die.

Despite pessimistic predictions at the beginning of this year's General Assembly session, proponents of a moratorium bill believe they have the votes to pass the measure in the House Judiciary and the Senate Judicial Proceedings committees.

But that support could be squandered if the committees' chairmen do not allow the bills to come up for a vote before the session ends April 9. Legislators have held tense closed-door meetings and strategic planning sessions this week to figure out how to save the moratorium from a game of legislative chicken that could lead to its failure.

The bills, filed in identical form in both chambers, call for a two-year halt to executions in the state until the University of Maryland completes a study on whether the death penalty is unfairly used against African-Americans. Nine of the 13 inmates on Maryland's death row are black, the highest percentage in the country.

The chairman of the House committee says he's waiting to see what the Senate panel does. The Senate committee chairman won't comment publicly on his plans for the measure but has told colleagues in private that he has no intention of taking up the bill.

Time is crucial, said Del. Salima S. Marriott, a Baltimore Democrat who is among those pushing hardest for the moratorium.

"We have four people who could be executed before the year is out, so we need to move," she said. "It's no time to be waiting on the Senate."

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down appeals by death-row inmate Vernon Evans, convicted in 1983 of killing two Baltimore motel clerks. Prosecutors will probably send an execution warrant to a judge by the end of next week. Once the judge signs it, an execution is typically scheduled within two months.

Two other death row inmates, Wesley Baker and Steven Oken, also have exhausted their federal appeals, and their execution warrants are before judges. A fourth, Anthony Grandison, has an appeal before the high court.

House Judiciary Committee member John A. Giannetti Jr., a Prince George's Democrat, said the panel is ready to take up the moratorium legislation. "If it comes to a vote, I think there's a tight majority in the committee" to approve it, he said. Other members are less certain.

Even if the bills are passed out favorably by the two committees, they would face intense scrutiny in the full chambers, where the death penalty is an emotionally charged subject.

A poll conducted for The Sun before the session began in January found that Maryland voters are split on the issue: 49 percent were opposed to a moratorium, 44 percent were in favor and 7 percent were undecided.

Asked about the bill yesterday, Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman Walter M. Baker, a Cecil County Democrat, replied, "Don't ask. Don't ask. I'm not going to talk about it."

But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller indicated that the bill would not languish in the chairman's desk drawer. "It's going to be voted on," Miller said.

A similar dynamic is at work in the House, where Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. said Tuesday that he was waiting to see what Baker's panel does before scheduling a vote.

But House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. was confident yesterday that his chamber's committee would act. "I feel absolutely sure that the House committee will take a vote on this bill," unless the Senate kills it first, he said.

Taylor expressed tacit support for the bill. "I think there's growing evidence that we are possibly killing innocent people - and keeping innocent people on death row interminably," he said.

A poll of the Senate panel suggests that the bill would pass there. Five Democrats are backing it - Sens. Leo E. Green of Prince George's, Jennie M. Forehand of Montgomery, and Perry Sfikas, Clarence M. Mitchell IV and Ralph M. Hughes, all of Baltimore.

The deciding sixth vote could come from Sen. Alex X. Mooney, a Frederick County Republican who spent much of this week battling those same Democrats - and the committee chairman - over the gay rights bill, which he opposed.

"I would lean in favor of voting for the moratorium," Mooney said yesterday. "I agree there are problems, that it might not be equally applied. I'm not so sure that's because of racial issues as much as it's because of economic issues."

Mooney said he supports the death penalty under some circumstances. So does Sen. Clarence W. Blount, who said he sponsored the moratorium bill in the Senate because he wants to ensure that minorities aren't victims of a double standard when it comes to capital punishment.

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