Death row bill fought

Execution moratorium gets early House OK

Senate block looms

Panel head opposes vote

Baker, Miller at odds

chair vows to prevent criminal `blank check'

March 24, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

As the House of Delegates gave tentative approval to a two-year moratorium on state executions yesterday morning, the focus of many lawmakers supporting the bill was already turning to one particularly powerful Senate colleague: Walter M. Baker, who could single-handedly stymie the bill's progress.

Baker, a Cecil County Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, has authority over the Senate version of the bill. Yesterday he said: "I'm not going to do anything. ... I see no reason whatsoever to bring it to a vote."

If the House passes the bill, Baker's ironclad refusal may pit his will against Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who is determined to bring the measure to the floor of the Senate so it can debate the bill - even though he doesn't like it.

"I'm certainly going to use my office to try to defeat the bill," Miller said yesterday, adding that the Senate has passed legislation guaranteeing death row inmates access to DNA evidence testing.

Although Miller sees the moratorium bill as a thinly veiled effort to eventually abolish the death penalty, he believes "the people of the state should be allowed to see how their elected representatives feel about this issue."

The House engaged in scant debate on the subject yesterday. It is likely to take up the moratorium for final approval today, so members of the Legislative Black Caucus spent much of the morning's session weaving through the House chamber counting votes.

"It's real tight," said Del. Salima S. Marriott, a Baltimore Democrat and prime sponsor of the moratorium bill. "We're winning, but it's tight."

Over in the Senate, five of 11 members on Baker's committee back the bill; a sixth, Frederick Republican Alex X. Mooney, is leaning toward a yes vote, he said earlier this week.

Regardless, Baker seems fully prepared to resist. "They're killers. That's what they are," Baker said of the men on death row. "They've been convicted. They have been through the process, most of them for eight or 10 years.

"All they want to do is to delay and try to get away with murder. To give a blank check to every criminal on death row is something I'm not going to do."

Baker added that postponing death sentences is the governor's responsibility, not the General Assembly's.

The moratorium bill calls for a halt to executions for two years, starting July 1. In the meantime, the University of Maryland is conducting a study on whether the death penalty is being used disproportionately against African-Americans.

Maryland has the highest percentage in the country of blacks on death row: Nine of the state's 13 death row inmates are African-American.

The House's action this week gave hope to moratorium advocates. Yesterday in Baltimore about a dozen protesters, including family members of death row convicts, gathered in the shadow of Maryland's Supermax prison, where executions take place.

"I believe the moratorium will be passed," said Evangelist Gwen Bates, the sister of death row inmate Vernon Lee Evans, who was convicted in 1983 of killing two Baltimore motel clerks. "The two years will give the state a chance to review the case. It will find him innocent."

Davida Oken said she didn't feel strange about standing so close to the prison where her son is being held. Steven Howard Oken was convicted of killing a White Marsh newlywed in 1987.

"I'd rather he be in there than the next step," Oken said. "I pray to God [the moratorium] passes. It's the right thing."

Evans and Oken are among the four men who could be executed by the year's end.

On the House floor yesterday, Del. George W. Owings III, a Calvert County Democrat, waved a recent newspaper clipping reporting that a prosecutor will ask a judge to sign Oken's death warrant April 16. Typically an execution happens within two months of a judge's signature.

Owings asked what would happen to Oken should the bill pass? Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., whose Judiciary Committee backed the moratorium bill 14-7 on Thursday, explained that if Oken's execution date is set before July 1, he could die. If it's set after July 1, the warrant would be void until 2003.

The moratorium bill is not the first one Baker has stonewalled. In an interview earlier this month, Baker said he usually gets the consensus of the committee on whether to vote on legislation.

But if he thinks a bill is unworthy of consideration, sometimes "I save them from themselves," Baker said of his members.

It's also not the first time his fellow senators have talked of circumventing his authority. At exactly this time last General Assembly session, Senate leaders invoked a somewhat obscure legislative rule to pluck the governor's gun-safety bill from Baker's committee, where it was languishing, and onto the floor for a vote.

Republicans were so angered by the move that they tried unsuccessfully to oust Miller from the presidency in December.

Yesterday Miller said he did not recommend bypassing the usual committee process, but it could happen on the moratorium bill.

For now, Miller is simply urging Baker to relent - in large part because Senate Majority Leader Clarence W. Blount, Baker's seatmate on the floor, has sponsored the Senate bill, Miller said.

"The majority leader, who's a close friend of the chairman's and is a very big supporter of mine, considers this a matter of pride for him. ... There will be a vote on this issue," he said.

"It will be voted on this session, one way or another," promised Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV. "If the chairman doesn't bring it to a vote in committee, it will be voted on another way."

Sun staff writers Howard Libit and Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this article.

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