2 killers may see execution dates set

Death warrants to be sought after moratorium defeat

April 11, 2001|By Dennis O'Brien and Sarah Koenig | Dennis O'Brien and Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Two death row inmates could have their execution dates set early next week because the General Assembly did not approve a moratorium on Maryland's death penalty.

Baltimore County prosecutors -- who won the convictions of more than half the 13 inmates on death row -- plan to ask judges to sign warrants to execute Steven Howard Oken and Wesley Baker.

Baltimore County Circuit Judge James T. Smith Jr. will be asked Monday to sign the death warrant for Oken, who could be the first inmate to die by lethal injection in Maryland since Tyrone Gilliam in 1998.

Harford County Circuit Judge Cypert O. Whitfill will be asked Tuesday to sign a death warrant for Baker. Whitfill presided at Baker's 1992 jury trial.

Lawyers for both inmates plan to argue that the warrants should not be signed because of unresolved legal issues.

Fred W. Bennett, Oken's lawyer, said he will ask Smith not to sign the warrant when the judge meets Monday with lawyers for both sides.

If Smith does sign the warrant, Bennett said he will ask for a stay, which would prohibit Oken's execution until the Court of Appeals reviews the case.

"We're back to business as usual now that the moratorium failed," Bennett said yesterday.

State law requires the execution to be carried out one to two months after the death warrant is signed.

Bennett is asking the Court of Appeals to review decisions by two Baltimore County judges last month that denied Oken a new sentencing hearing.

The Maryland attorney general's office has asked the appeals court to consolidate Oken's case with the appeal filed by Lawrence Borchardt, a death row inmate whose case is scheduled to be heard May 4.

Bennett, who represents Borchardt and Oken, said he opposes the state's request to consolidate the cases because of the time required to prepare for them.

"They're different cases with different issues," Bennett said.

Gary Christopher, Baker's lawyer, also has filed a request with Harford Circuit Judge Maurice W. Baldwin Jr., who presided over Baker's post-conviction appeal, asking him to reconsider the case.

Baker was convicted in the 1991 killing and robbery of a woman at Westview Mall.

Christopher said that Baldwin should review Baker's case based on issues raised about racial disparities and Maryland's death row during this year's legislative session.

Race was a key factor in a call for a death penalty moratorium in this year's legislative session.

The measure, which failed the last day of the session, prompted emotional debates in the House and the Senate focused on the race of those sentenced to death.

Of the 13 inmates on death row, nine are African-American.

Sen. Clarence W. Blount, a Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the bill, said a moratorium would have allowed time to examine a system that could be flawed.

"The focus of this bill is to address a fundamental truth: that we've been executing innocent people in this country. If there's a more perfect way to figure out if they should be on death row, then we ought to use that," Blount said.

But moratorium opponents, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, focused on the brutality of Oken's crimes when they talked about their opposition to the legislation.

Oken was given a death sentence for killing a White Marsh woman in 1987.

"I would like to see Mr. Oken put to death," Miller said after the session ended Monday.

Miller, a Prince George's Democrat, added that Oken's case does not support claims by death penalty opponents that Maryland's death penalty law is racist.

"He's white, he's college educated," Miller said. "I personally don't think the law's been administered unfairly."

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