House approves bill to halt executions

2-year moratorium would allow analysis of death sentences

Long, heated debate

Senate version locked in committee

March 25, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

After a long debate that featured shouting and vivid descriptions of murders, the House of Delegates voted yesterday to suspend executions in Maryland for two years.

The 82-54 tally represented fairly solid support for the bill, which calls for a halt to executions starting July 1. In the interim, the General Assembly would await and analyze the results of a University of Maryland study on whether the death penalty is being unfairly used against African-Americans, who account for nine of the 13 men on Maryland's death row.

"The vote shows that people understand that this bill is about fairness and not about the death penalty," said Jane Henderson of Equal Justice USA, a human rights organization.

But that didn't stop yesterday's debate from repeatedly veering into one about the death penalty. Moratorium opponents argued that the legislation represents the first step toward banning capital punishment.

"This would not be the prelude to the abolishment of the death penalty, would it?" asked Del. George W. Owings III, a Calvert County Democrat.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. replied, "We have no preview of coming attractions."

What moratorium proponents also cannot predict is what will happen in the Senate, where an identical bill is trapped in the Judicial Proceedings Committee. Chairman Walter M. Baker, a Cecil County Democrat, said Friday that he would not bring the bill to a vote, even though a majority of his committee members want him to.

The House bill will also land in Baker's committee, so moratorium supporters are trying to figure out how to persuade Baker to change his mind -- or how to circumvent his authority using obscure legislative rules.

Despite his influence, Baker could find himself isolated. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has vowed to let his chamber vote on the bill -- although he has said he will oppose the legislation with vehemence.

Miller, like other moratorium opponents, said the state has safeguards, such as extensive appeals options and DNA testing, to ensure innocent people are not executed.

Those arguments were echoed in the House chamber yesterday. To dampen them, the bill's advocates doggedly steered the discussion back to the facts of the bill.

Del. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat and a public defender, noted that prosecutors could still seek the death penalty during the moratorium, and that inmates scheduled to die before July 1 could still receive a lethal injection. She also pointed out that the University of Maryland study is focused not on the inmates' innocence or guilt but on the process that landed them on death row.

Del. William H. Cole IV, also a Baltimore Democrat, put it bluntly: Most of the men on death row are black. All the inmates are poor and were represented by public defenders. Most of them were sentenced in Baltimore County, where the state's attorney, unlike her counterpart in Baltimore City, seeks capital murder charges whenever possible.

"There is a problem with the system," Cole said. "We want to make sure that it is fair for black and white, rich and poor."

Although several delegates underscored their support of the moratorium and the death penalty, others could not reconcile those positions.

In voices shaky with emotion, several people referred in detail to violent crimes -- especially those of Steven Howard Oken, who killed two Maryland women in 1987. Oken is one of three death row inmates who has exhausted his appeals. A prosecutor has asked a judge to sign his death warrant April 16, meaning he could be executed two months later.

Del. Theodore J. Sophocleus, an Anne Arundel Democrat, recalled how he cleaned up blood and other remains of a pharmacist who worked for him after the man was shot in an armed robbery. "He didn't get a two-year moratorium," he said of the victim. "He got a death sentence immediately."

Others said they welcomed the study but did not see a reason to halt executions in the meantime. House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who indicated last week that he might vote for the moratorium, said the debate changed his mind.

"I guess I came down on the side that we should not tamper with the system until we have completed the study," he said, adding that the governor has the power to stop an execution if he suspects a miscarriage of justice.

Taylor was one of 26 Democrats who voted against the bill, along with 28 Republicans.

After the vote, Richard K. Dowling, a lobbyist for the Maryland Catholic Conference, gave a hug and kiss to the bill's prime sponsor, Del. Salima S. Marriott of Baltimore. Dowling said his efforts and those of other moratorium supporters will now turn to the Senate.

Their message will concentrate on fairness, he said. "If we don't do this, and this study comes back and shows us the case of a person already put to death was tainted by racial bias, then we've got blood on our hands."

Roll call

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