The death penalty deception

April 19, 2002|By Mike Stark

WASHINGTON - A Maryland judge signed a death warrant March 19 for Wesley Eugene Baker, who was sentenced to die for the 1991 shooting death of Jane Tyson. His case illustrates the racist and arbitrary nature of Maryland's death row.

Mr. Baker is a poor black man accused of killing a white woman in affluent, mostly white Baltimore County. The county's method of seeking death first and asking questions later, combined with its overwhelming percentage of white prosecutors, judges and jurors, makes it no surprise that impoverished black defendants such as Mr. Baker end up on death row.

In fact, Maryland has one of the highest percentages of blacks on death row in the country. Yet these numbers do not reflect actual patterns of crime.

Each year, blacks account for about 80 percent of Maryland's murder victims, yet 92 percent (12 of 13) of those currently on death row are accused of killing whites. Also, black-on-white crime accounts for less than 5 percent of murders annually, yet 62 percent (eight of 13) on death row are blacks accused of killing whites.

These shocking statistics prompted Gov. Parris N. Glendening to order a $250,000 study of whether racism affects Maryland's death penalty. Mr. Baker is scheduled to die the week of May 12, four months before the study is to be completed. Worse, it is not clear that Mr. Baker was guilty of firing the shot. To receive the death penalty, a defendant must be the "principal" participant in a murder. But doubts exist whether Mr. Baker shot Ms. Tyson. She was killed while returning to her car from shopping with her grandchildren at Westview Mall in Baltimore County on June 6, 1991.

At the trial, the jury never heard the background of Mr. Baker's co-defendant, Gregory Lawrence. He had a criminal record, including an at-gunpoint carjacking virtually identical to the crime of which Mr. Baker is accused. Also, several witnesses contradict each other's and prosecutors' versions of events.

Mr. Baker's case also shows how prosecutors will spin facts in order to sell the death penalty. Based merely on the fact that Ms. Tyson was killed by a single shot fired at close range, prosecutors convinced the jury that Mr. Baker planned the murder from the outset and deserved to die. But the facts indicate the shooting was not an intentional killing but a botched robbery attempt.

Mr. Baker's trial attorney never independently examined the gun that killed Ms. Tyson. When later tested, the gun was shown to have a dangerously light "hair" trigger - well below the manufacturer's specifications. The judge was never informed of that.

Further, the tests conducted to determine who fired the gun were rendered useless by botched lab results.

Witnesses also reported that Ms. Tyson screamed when approached by the assailant - a reaction suggesting a panic response by the shooter, not premeditated murder. Some blood was found on Mr. Baker's clothes, but Mr. Lawrence's clothes never were submitted for analysis to determine if he had any blood on them. It means that the blood on Mr. Baker's clothes only shows that he was involved and at the scene, but this was not in dispute.

Mr. Baker's counsel was woefully unprepared to effectively argue his case. His attorneys failed to interview available and obvious witnesses who could have cast doubt on the state's version of Mr. Baker's involvement in the crime.

During the trial, the judge was not told about Mr. Baker's extremely abusive childhood. Mr. Baker was raised in part by his drug-addicted, abusive stepfather, who frequently beat him and his mother. From the age of 9, Mr. Baker lived on the streets. Mr. Baker's mother was eager to testify on her son's behalf, but she never was called to the stand. Disclosure of these facts might have prevented Mr. Baker from receiving the death sentence.

Public support of the death sentence has been built on the myth that Maryland's death penalty is aimed at the worst of the worst - those convicted of the most heinous of offenses.

Instead, the death penalty follows the path of least resistance - sending the poor and minorities to die.

When Maryland's citizens handed the state the awesome power to execute, they intended the death penalty to be used consistently and fairly. Neither the facts used to convict Mr. Baker nor the circumstances of the crime measure up to standards set for the death penalty.

Governor Glendening should do everything in his power to ensure that Mr. Baker and others on death row are not executed.

Mike Stark is the Baltimore-Washington coordinator of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.

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