Death penalty foes petition Glendening

Bill for moratorium defeated at close of last General Assembly

`A tough vote'

But governor says policy change must be made by legislators

February 10, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

This time last year, supporters of a death penalty moratorium were excitedly counting votes in Annapolis, preparing for a debate that would turn into the General Assembly's most surprising victory - and, in the session's final minutes, its most divisive defeat.

But no one is counting votes this year because no moratorium bill has been introduced. Instead of spending their energy on lawmakers, moratorium advocates are lobbying Gov. Parris N. Glendening to halt state executions until June next year. That would allow enough time, they say, for a study of whether death sentences are applied fairly in Maryland to be completed and digested by policy-makers.

At the same time, politicians and activists are watching the courts intently. Last week, Maryland's Court of Appeals stayed the execution of Steven H. Oken, who was scheduled to die next month for the rape and murder of a White Marsh woman in 1987.

The court said Oken should have time to appeal his case to the U.S. Supreme Court - a ruling that effectively imposes a moratorium on three other impending executions because prosecutors are expected to wait for the Supreme Court's action before requesting more death warrants.

The reprieve would seem to take the pressure off Glendening. Activists see it as their mission not to let that happen. In meetings and rallies, and in a steady stream of letters, phone calls and e-mail messages, they argue that the governor rightfully should shoulder responsibility for enacting a moratorium by executive order.

"The problem with a judicially imposed `time out' on executions is, nobody knows how long [it's] going to last," said Jane Henderson of Equal Justice USA, an anti-death penalty group.

But the result of this strategy has been a stalemate. As lawmakers such as Del. Salima S. Marriott, a Baltimore Democrat and the moratorium's champion, pressure the governor to halt executions, the governor has shifted the burden back onto legislators.

"In Maryland, ... the actual policy for the death penalty is made by the legislature, as it should be," Glendening said recently. "If they elect to change the procedures, I will follow what procedures they change."

Glendening reiterated his vow to evaluate each execution order on a "case-by-case" basis, and noted that Oken's situation should not worry those concerned about a racist use of the death penalty, the core reason supporters seek the moratorium. Oken is white, as was his victim.

The governor's stance makes Marriott seethe. Many see the moratorium as a civil rights issue - one that Glendening, who boasts of his civil rights record, should embrace. Maryland's death row is home to 13 men, nine of whom are black, and most of whom killed white people. Moratorium advocates expect the results of a University of Maryland study, due in September (and which Glendening funded), to show that death sentences are disproportionately meted out, not only to African-Americans, but to those blacks who kill whites.

"I'm enraged. The Legislative Black Caucus is enraged. Democrats in the House who passed this bill are enraged. The person who owes us is ... Parris Glendening. We elected him," she said.

Marriott's decision not to introduce another moratorium bill is partly pragmatic and partly political. A bill calling for a two-year moratorium passed the House of Delegates last year, only to be killed by a Senate filibuster, which lasted until midnight on the last day of the session.

To ensure the bill's demise, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller later removed Republican Sen. Alex X. Mooney of Frederick from the Judicial Proceedings Committee, where his "yes" vote brought the moratorium to the Senate floor. The switch means the moratorium no longer has a chance of committee approval.

In addition, this is an election year and a redistricting year, a time when lawmakers prefer not to roil constituents by voting on sensitive issues. "For us to introduce it in the House, that would be a tough vote. Why should [House members] be forced to take it, when the governor is not even running?" said Marriott.

Although Glendening has shown no sign that he will change his mind, moratorium advocates hope the pressure at least will catch the attention of his presumed successor, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Her office referred questions about the moratorium to the governor's office.

"It's definitely going to be an election-year issue," said Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, a Baltimore Democrat who led the Senate fight for the moratorium last year. "If the governor and the lieutenant governor want to continue the future of their administration smoothly ... there's no way a gubernatorial candidate can avoid dealing with it."

Richard K. Dowling, a lobbyist for the Maryland Catholic Conference, agrees. "The lieutenant governor risks offending a goodly portion of her constituency if she has to confront the issue and is as favorably disposed to the death penalty as she appears," he said.

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