First step is OK'd in new look at executions

Ehrlich gives Steele go-ahead to interview those involved in process

January 28, 2003|By Sarah Koenig and Stephanie Hanes | Sarah Koenig and Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. instructed his lieutenant governor yesterday to interview prosecutors, defense attorneys and others involved in the state's death penalty as a first step to deciding whether to seek further study of apparent racial and jurisdictional disparities in its use.

But Ehrlich also made clear he has no intention of reinstating a moratorium on state executions, and said his staff has begun reviewing the first death penalty case likely to request his signature on a clemency petition.

Ehrlich's statement came as a Baltimore County judge signed a death warrant for Steven H. Oken, setting an execution by lethal injection for the week of March 17.

Oken's lawyer said yesterday that he plans to challenge the sentence based on results of the recent University of Maryland study showing that certain defendants are more likely than others to be sentenced to death. The motion would mark the first time the study would be taken up by the court.

That study has troubled Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who said over the weekend he would ask Ehrlich for an additional review to figure out why blacks who kill whites are statistically more likely to end up on death row, as the university analysis indicates.

The study also showed that where the killing occurred in the state also greatly affected the outcome of the case. Eight of the 12 inmates on death row are black, nine were convicted in Baltimore County and all killed white victims.

"Clearly, there's a linkage to race, and clearly there's a linkage to jurisdiction," Steele said yesterday at a news conference.

Ehrlich agreed to allow Steele to explore the topic by interviewing "a wide variety of interest groups" including Maryland State's Attorneys' Association members, defense lawyers and advocates on both sides of the capital punishment debate.

Once Steele reports back to Ehrlich, the governor will decide whether a more comprehensive study of the matter is needed, he said in his statement. Ehrlich's comments, read at a news conference by his communications director, Paul E. Schurick, are his first response to the two-year University of Maryland study, which was commissioned by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

His statement also drove home the message that Ehrlich, who ran on a pro-death penalty platform, and Steele, who opposes capital punishment on religious grounds, are not at odds over the issue -- a point Steele made several times yesterday.

Steele said he supports Ehrlich's decision to move forward with scheduled executions as he looks into possible problems in the system. "I think you can do both," he said.

Schurick, too, said he saw no policy inconsistency in allowing death sentences to move forward. Besides Oken, the cases of six more inmates could arrive at Ehrlich's desk in the coming months.

The governor has asked his legal counsel, Jervis S. Finney, to compile a "comprehensive array" of information about Oken, 40, who was sentenced to death in 1991 for the 1987 sexual assault and murder of a White Marsh woman. Ehrlich also plans to meet with people connected to the case -- something Glendening never did.

However Schurick said Ehrlich was inclined to deny any request to commute Oken's sentence for crimes his statement called "brutal and heinous."

Yesterday, legislators also responded to the university study. Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican, introduced a bill that would require the state to seek capital murder charges in every case that meets the requirements, except when the victim's family objects. She named the bill "Dawn's Law," after an Oken victim.

Soon after Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge John G. Turnbull II signed Oken's death warrant yesterday, Oken's attorney, Fred W. Bennett, filed a motion in Circuit Court using a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to challenge the constitutionality of Maryland's death penalty law.

Bennett said he hopes to file a second challenge by the end of next week that will use the University of Maryland study to try to invalidate the state's death statute.

Bennett said the study's results directly concern his client: Oken's victim, 20-year-old Dawn Marie Garvin, was white, a factor the university study said greatly increased his likelihood of a death sentence. Oken, who is white, also stood trial in Baltimore County, the district in which the study said defendants are most likely to be sentenced to death.

"We would hope to litigate these matters in Circuit Court, and if necessary appeal to the Court of Appeals," Bennett said.

The challenge Bennett filed yesterday says a June Supreme Court decision shows that Oken -- along with all other Maryland death row inmates -- was sentenced to death unconstitutionally.

At issue is how a judge or a jury should weigh evidence when they decide whether a defendant gets life in prison or the death sentence. Currently, state law says they use a standard called "preponderance of the evidence," which means treating the decision as if they had a set of scales -- if they are 51 percent convinced that a defendant deserves death, then they order death.

The challenge says that the evidence should be decided beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard used in deciding whether someone is guilty.

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