Death penalty pleas revived

Religious leaders urge governor to call halt to state executions

April 14, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Religious leaders from across Maryland and the country, including the archbishop of Baltimore, urged the governor yesterday to halt state executions for two years - pleas that came four days after lawmakers struggled over moratorium legislation that failed in the final hours of the General Assembly session.

The fresh calls for Gov. Parris N. Glendening to temporarily stop state executions also arrived a day after the state's highest court delivered a potentially far-reaching ruling likely to delay any executions for up to six months.

As a result, Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra O'Connor said yesterday she would not seek a death warrant for three-time murderer Steven Howard Oken on Monday as planned.

In an unusual Good Friday address to hundreds of congregants at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, Cardinal William H. Keeler called the court decision "a welcomed sign of growing awareness in our society that there is something problematic in using the death penalty to solve problems."

In an interview earlier yesterday, Keeler said that the court ruling "helps the atmosphere. It shows that the judge himself has reflected enough to give voice to concerns that many people have."

Keeler and others hope Glendening, a death penalty supporter who has the power to commute executions, will reconsider his position.

But Michael Morrill, Glendening's spokesman, said the governor would adhere to his existing policy. "The governor was willing to work with the legislature [on the moratorium legislation], but the law remains the same," he said. "As cases come to him, he will review them, as the law requires, on a case-by-case basis, completely and thoroughly."

Besides, Morrill added, "The court's decision to review questions about the death penalty places this whole issue on hold for now."

The moratorium bill rejected by the General Assembly Monday night would have temporarily stopped executions while a University of Maryland criminologist completed a study on whether racism affects who gets sentenced to death. Nine of the men on Maryland's death row are African-American.

"Such a cessation of Maryland executions," Keeler wrote to Glendening, "would prudently stay the risk that biased death-penalty processes might have tainted the trials or appeals of current death-row inmates who, but for a moratorium, are likely to be executed between now and April of 2003."

A moratorium bill passed the House of Delegates, but a filibuster doomed a similar measure in the state Senate. The bill's proponents said it had slim majority support in that chamber.

Religious leaders yesterday referred to the moratorium's inconclusive fate in the General Assembly as reason for Glendening to enact it by executive order.

"We know that the legislation only died because a filibuster orchestrated by a few let time in the session run out. It is with a sense of urgency, then, that we ask you to enact this life-affirming measure that would have otherwise crossed your desk," reads another letter signed by 13 prominent members of state and national religious organizations, including Rabbi Mark G. Loeb of Baltimore's Beth-El Congregation, the Benedictine Sisters of Baltimore and Raymond L. Flynn, former Boston mayor and U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican.

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, also sent Glendening a letter urging a two-year moratorium. So did Sister Helen Prejean of Louisiana, author of the book "Dead Man Walking."

"This is not about abolishing the death penalty. It is about fairness and justice," she wrote.

Catholic leaders have called on the governor before to abolish the death penalty. Two years ago, a group of bishops serving Maryland, Washington and Delaware issued a joint statement to that effect. But they have never appealed to him so publicly, or forcefully, on the moratorium until now.

Maryland citizens appear split on whether executions ought to be halted. A January poll conducted for The Sun found that 49 percent opposed a moratorium, while 44 percent favored one. Seven percent were undecided.

And just as in the legislature, the moratorium debate invited divided views yesterday from Catholics remembering Jesus' crucifixion during services at the huge, echo-filled cathedral where Keeler presides.

After Keeler's comments, Bob Meny of Towson said he, too, thought it was time to stop executions. "We now know so many innocent people are put to death, like in Texas. It's so terrible."

But a Baltimore woman who did not want her name published said she supported the death penalty as proper punishment for murderers. "So he can talk all he wants," she said of Keeler. "But he's not talking for me."

The Court of Appeals decision Thursday amounted to an agreement not to expedite a review of Oken's appeal, which challenges the constitutionality of the state's murder statute based on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year in a New Jersey case.

The court won't hear the case until next fall. Because the issues raised by Oken's attorneys are common to other capital murder cases, the ruling also means the likely postponement of execution dates for three other inmates who could have been given lethal injections by year's end.

O'Connor had planned to ask a judge to sign a death warrant Monday for Oken, who raped and killed three women in 1987, but Bell's decision changed her mind.

"It's just jerking people's emotions down too much to ask for a death penalty that will be stayed," she said, adding that going through the motions would be traumatic for the families of the victims.

Staff writer Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.

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