A tenacious voice against executions

Delegate Marriott's efforts to halt capital punishment in the state finally pay off

May 13, 2002|By Ivan Penn and Sarah Koenig | Ivan Penn and Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

On a visit to a death row inmate in Baltimore's Supermax prison in 1997, Del. Salima S. Marriott received a charge from the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson that would catapult her into the forefront of the debate on capital punishment in Maryland.

Although Marriott had long opposed the death penalty, Jackson wanted her to take a bolder step and resoundingly voice her position on state executions, which she believed unfairly targeted African-Americans.

She became the face and voice of the campaign against the death penalty in Annapolis, hoping to win at least a temporary halt to executions in Maryland.

"I am basically a person who opposes the death penalty," Marriott said. "I knew race and class were factors. Reverend Jackson asked that I take a stand on my beliefs."

Last week -- just days before the scheduled execution of Wesley Eugene Baker -- Gov. Parris N. Glendening responded to the calls for a death penalty moratorium, imposing a ban on capital punishment in the state while a University of Maryland study is completed and reviewed. His decision made Maryland the second state to impose a moratorium on executions.

Glendening said he reviewed statistics showing that nine of Maryland's 13 death row inmates were prosecuted in Baltimore County and that nine are black. He said the statistics raise questions about whether there is discrimination in decisions to seek the death penalty.

Marriott, a 61-year-old social worker, had been arguing the point for years in the General Assembly and to the governor, though some of her colleagues who opposed the death penalty didn't like to hear her use race as part of the campaign for a moratorium.

At first, her style -- straightforward, unapologetic and sometimes bitingly critical of the state's most powerful politicians -- made some advocates nervous. She spoke so plainly about racism, they grumbled, and her strategic instincts sometimes seemed askew. Perhaps, some suggested, the West Baltimore Democrat wasn't the best ambassador for the moratorium bill.

"I think there was that worry. But I think for the most part that was a worry of a bunch of white do-gooders, myself included, who didn't know her and were unaccustomed to her style and her persistence on an issue she cared so much about," said Richard J. Dowling, a lobbyist for the Maryland Catholic Conference.

Campaign's beginnings

Marriott's efforts began during her visit with Jackson to Supermax in protest of the execution of Flint Gregory Hunt, convicted of the 1985 murder of Baltimore police Officer Vincent J. Adolfo. Hunt's execution in July 1997 sparked wide protest from opponents of the death penalty, with whom Marriott joined in the campaign.

Marriott had worked with Jackson as a board member of his national Rainbow Coalition. So the civil rights leader knew of her concern about the death penalty and the impact she could have as a state lawmaker.

During the 1998 legislative session, then-Sen. Decatur Trotter, a Prince George's County Democrat, sponsored legislation calling for a study of the apparent racial disparity in the use of capital punishment and for a moratorium on executions.

Marriott joined Trotter's fight, sponsoring a companion bill in the House of Delegates. But lawmakers defeated the bills in both houses, and Marriott began to realize the magnitude of the struggle.

She and others began building coalitions with such groups as the Maryland Catholic Conference, Amnesty International, the Coalition to End State Executions and the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. The African-American church community also became a vocal supporter of the effort.

Last year, when Marriott again lobbied for moratorium legislation, longtime political watchers respectfully dismissed her. They figured her odds for success were about the same as the odds for those who wanted to legalize marijuana use for sick people.

But the moratorium bill turned out to be the session's sleeper. A surprise "yes" vote in the generally conservative Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee gave the legislation the momentum it needed to storm through the House. In the Senate, after spirited protests and a filibuster, the bill finally failed in the session's last hours.

Despite the outcome, Marriott and other advocates said they were pleased: They never expected the measure to get as far as it did. "This is not going away," Peter Loge of the Justice Project said at the time.

Recognition for efforts

Del. Talmadge Branch, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, awarded her the first Chairman's Meritorious Award for her work on the death penalty and other issues. "She's been one tenacious legislator," Branch said. "I didn't want her efforts to go unnoticed."

Dowling said Marriott considered introducing another moratorium bill this year. But he urged her to take a different approach: Get Glendening to impose a moratorium by executive order.

Last week, it worked. "I couldn't be happier with the governor's decision," Marriott said.

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