Court upholds death penalty in '91 murder

Baker's defense attorney plans appeal to U.S. Supreme Court

October 09, 2004|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Maryland's highest court upheld yesterday the death sentence of a Baltimore man convicted in the 1991 fatal shooting of a grandmother during a robbery in the parking lot of a Catonsville mall.

The unanimous decision by the Court of Appeals brings Wesley Eugene Baker, 46, one step closer to the issuance of a warrant for his execution.

William B. Purpura, a public defender representing Baker, said he intends to appeal the court's decision to the U.S. Supreme Court and plans a broader legal challenge that would explore the issue of race in capital cases.

"We are close to the end and ... there's just nothing much more," Purpura said yesterday. "The Baltimore County state's attorney could seek a death warrant. They could do that now."

S. Ann Brobst, a county prosecutor, said she will speak Tuesday with the state attorney general's senior counsel for capital litigation to decide on a course of action.

Baker was scheduled to be put to death in May 2002. But days before his scheduled execution, then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening imposed a state moratorium on the death penalty.

The moratorium was effectively lifted when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. came into office, and in June convicted murderer Steven H. Oken was executed.

In Baker's most recent appeal, he had argued that Maryland's process for sentencing death penalty cases is flawed. His lawyers focused on the way a judge or jury weighs reasons to sentence a murderer to death against reasons to spare the killer's life.

Using a standard called "preponderance of the evidence," a judge or jury must decide whether aggravating factors, such as a rape or another felony committed along with the murder, outweigh mitigating factors, such as a defendant's troubled childhood.

Preponderance of the evidence means that it is more likely than not that the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors. It is a less stringent standard than "beyond a reasonable doubt," which is required in finding a person guilty of a crime.

But the Court of Appeals wrote in its 17-page opinion that the challenge to the evidence standard "is not a proper issue this case" because the balancing test was not used during Baker's sentencing hearing. The sentencing judge determined there were no mitigating factors to consider.

Still, the appeals court went on in yesterday's opinion to reaffirm the constitutionality of the state's balancing test.

But Michael Stark, an organizer with Campaign to End the Death Penalty, said the court missed the real issue: Plenty of mitigating evidence never reached the sentencing judge because Baker, told the night before the hearing by his attorneys about the family history they planned to present, forbid his attorneys from presenting any of it.

"That's always been the sticking point with Baker," Stark said. "His life is like a horror story with tons and tons and tons of mitigating stuff."

In a clemency petition delivered to Glendening in May 2002 in an effort to save Baker's life, the death row inmate's attorneys wrote that an unstable childhood with an exceptionally young mother led Baker to begin drinking vodka and using marijuana by age 10 and to start shooting heroin by 14.

After running away from home, Baker frequented The Block and took to "sleeping in movie theaters, hotel bathrooms and abandoned cars," according to the petition. He quit school in the eighth grade, and at 14, according to the petition, began a relationship with a woman in her late 20s who supported a heroin habit by working as a prostitute.

Baker was 34 when a Harford County jury convicted him of murder in 1992 for killing Jane Tyson, a 49-year-old teacher's aide. She was shot June 6, 1991, in front of two of her grandchildren in the parking lot of Westview Mall in a robbery that netted $10.

Baker's lawyers also are preparing a legal challenge that would use a University of Maryland study released last year that found racial and geographic influences on capital punishment in the state.

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