Death-penalty foes lobby legislators

Opponents seek extension of executions moratorium

February 11, 2003|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

With slightly more than a month before convicted murderer Steven H. Oken is scheduled to die, opponents of the death penalty rushed from one lawmaker's door to another last night to build support in Annapolis for an extension of the moratorium on executions.

Among those lobbying was Madison Hobley, a 16-year death row inmate from Illinois who was pardoned last month after it was found that he was tortured by police into a confession for a crime he did not commit.

"The governor had the courage to pardon me on actual innocence," said Hobley, 42, who was convicted of a 1987 arson in which his wife and child died. "My cause today is hopefully to get lawmakers in Maryland to reconsider and continue the moratorium."

Lawmakers might play a critical role in saving Oken, scheduled to die the week of March 17.

When Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. took office, he lifted the moratorium imposed by his predecessor, despite a state study that showed racial and other disparities in how the death penalty is imposed. Ehrlich has said he believes the death penalty is a viable option in helping to deter crime and decided to move forward with the state's first execution in five years.

Lawmakers and death penalty opponents -- including Oken's mother, Davida Oken -- are hoping to change Ehrlich's mind with a measure that would block executions until after the state report is reviewed by the General Assembly and lawmakers make recommendations.

One of the leading sponsors of the legislation, Del. Salima S. Marriott, played coach for the death penalty opponents last night before they began their lobbying effort, introducing them to other lawmakers and identifying key decision-makers.

The Baltimore Democrat said one of the critical steps is to win the support of the House Judiciary Committee, the committee set to hear the measure.

Though Ehrlich has threatened to veto any moratorium measure, Marriott and the small group took their case last night to every Judiciary Committee member they could find.

In the Lowe House Office Building, the group mostly found empty rooms after talking with Del. Pauline H. Menes, a Prince George's Democrat and a champion of their cause. But the evening culminated in a meeting with the most critical member of the committee, Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr.

They pleaded with the Prince George's Democrat to schedule a hearing for the bill as soon as possible to ensure that it has enough time to pass and be signed into law before March 17.

"You just don't kill people when you've got so many issues before you," Davida Oken told Vallario. "I have six grandchildren who are asking, `Are they going to kill Uncle Steve?'"

Vallario said he would schedule a hearing as quickly as possible, but he said passing the legislation might not happen before Oken's scheduled execution.

Hobley said he wants people to realize that the death penalty is not the best answer, even for punishing a guilty person.

"What the public doesn't know is it's a greater punishment to make a man suffer life in prison," he told Vallario. "It messes with your mind. I know."

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