Lawyers ask Court of Appeals to overturn death penalty law

October 10, 2001|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

Lawyers for two death row inmates asked the state's highest court yesterday to overturn Maryland's death penalty law because a U.S. Supreme Court decision raised the standards a jury must follow when sentencing a killer to death.

Lawyers for Steven H. Oken and Wesley Baker, both sentenced to die in the early 1990s for Baltimore County murders, argued that the Supreme Court nullified Maryland's death penalty in June 2000 when it struck down a New Jersey "hate crime" law.

The high court ruled in Apprendi vs. New Jersey that to increase a defendant's prison sentence beyond the statutory maximum, as the hate crime statute allowed, prosecutors must prove the existence of aggravating factors beyond a reasonable doubt.

In Maryland, juries can sentence killers to death based on a lower standard of proof, called a preponderance of evidence, when considering aggravating factors, such as a rape or armed robbery committed during the killing.

Oken's lawyer, Fred W. Bennett, argued that "preponderance of evidence" simply means "more likely than not" and is not a high enough standard.

"Are you going to allow a man's life to be taken on a standard of proof that is more likely than not?" he asked the seven-member court.

Bennett said after yesterday's hearing that if the Court of Appeals strikes down the death penalty, "it will mean everybody on death row would be entitled to another hearing because the burden of proof was wrong."

He suggested imposing a "de facto moratorium" on executions until the Maryland General Assembly can rewrite the law to allow a death penalty that follows the Supreme Court ruling.

But Ann N. Bosse, the assistant attorney general arguing to uphold the death penalty statute, said the New Jersey case does not apply to Maryland's law. Bosse said the Supreme Court has signaled that "death is different" from other cases that are being affected by the Apprendi decision.

Challenges to the death penalty law have delayed executions of Baker and Oken and also Vernon Evans and Anthony Grandison.

Oken was sentenced to die in the gas chamber for killing Dawn Marie Garvin, a 20-year-old White Marsh newlywed, whom he also sexually assaulted, on Nov. 2, 1987. Two weeks later he killed his wife's sister, Patricia A. Hirt, 43. He fled to Kittery, Maine, where he killed Lori E. Ward, 25, a motel clerk. He was sentenced to two life sentences for killing Hirt and Ward.

Baker received the death penalty for the 1991 shooting of Jane Tyson, 49, in front of her grandchildren at Westview Mall.

His lawyers, Franklin W. Draper and Gary W. Christopher, made arguments similar to Bennett's, but also questioned whether the state proved that Baker was the man who shot Tyson, rather than his co-defendant.

Yesterday the judges appeared concerned about how the Apprendi case might affect Maryland's death penalty, but they did not indicate how they will rule.

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