Keeler sees killer, appeals execution

Cardinal visits prison, seeks Ehrlich's mercy

November 29, 2005|By JENNIFER MCMENAMIN AND MATTHEW HAY BROWN | JENNIFER MCMENAMIN AND MATTHEW HAY BROWN,SUN REPORTERS

In a rare and dramatic gesture, Cardinal William H. Keeler visited convicted killer Wesley Eugene Baker on Maryland's death row yesterday as Keeler appealed to the governor to stop the execution scheduled for next week.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who signed Baker's death warrant this month, "fully respects Cardinal Keeler and his beliefs," spokesman Henry Fawell said, and is "committed to giving this case a thorough and objective review based on its own individual merits."

The cardinal's visit to death row - his first - came less than two weeks after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a statement calling for an end to the death penalty. It came on the day that Baker's lawyers asked Ehrlich to commute their client's death sentence and petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review lower courts' rejections of requests to have his sentence overturned.

Keeler described the brief meeting with Baker as "very prayerful and spiritual," saying he offered a blessing over the death row inmate. For church leaders, he later added, "This is an opportunity when we can and should speak out on behalf of human life."

Baker, 47, is scheduled to be put to death by injection the week of Dec. 5 for the killing of Jane Tyson, a 49-year-old teacher's aide who was shot in the head and robbed of her purse in front of two of her grandchildren outside Westview Mall in Baltimore County in 1991.

Keeler said he had spoken by phone over the past few days with Tyson's relatives. "They understood that we have to do what our conscience leads us to do," the cardinal said, declining to elaborate on their conversations.

Karen Sulewski, whose children were with her mother when she was killed, said last night that she knew of the cardinal's visit and did not wish to comment.

An archdiocese spokesman said Keeler's visit to death row was, to his knowledge, the first in modern times by a Maryland bishop. As chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee for Pro-Life Activities, Keeler collaborated on a soon-to-be-published document that seeks to "seize a new moment" to spread Roman Catholic teachings on the issue.

In a letter sent yesterday, Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington, and Bishop Michael A. Saltarelli of Wilmington, Del., asked the governor to commute Baker's sentence to life without parole.

"We write as believers, who know that God's justice is seasoned by His mercy," the church leaders wrote. "Mercy is what we ask of you in the case of Mr. Baker."

Church teaching "acknowledges the right of legitimate government to resort to the death penalty, but it challenges the appropriateness of doing so in a society now capable of defending the public order and ensuring the public's safety," the bishops wrote.

Quoting both the Bible and the remarks of former Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin upon the last of his 15 commutations, the bishops reminded Ehrlich that "no decision of your gubernatorial service can be more momentous than the decision to extend, or to withhold the hand of mercy."

The bishops' letter echoes many of the ideas discussed at this month's conference of bishops, where an 18-page statement, "A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death," was approved. The statement characterizes the administration of capital punishment as error-prone, biased and irreversible, and says that state-sanctioned killing diminishes all Americans. It also warns that the death penalty offers a false hope of healing to the survivors of crime and calls on Catholics to support those who have lost loved ones.

In June 2004, the three bishops asked Ehrlich to spare the life of death row inmate Steven H. Oken, to no avail.

Convicted of the sexual assaults and murders of two women in Maryland and one in Maine in 1987, Oken was put to death by injection later that month. It was the 84th execution in Maryland history and the state's fourth since resuming executions in 1994 after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

Upon his arrival at 5:05 p.m. yesterday at the high-security Baltimore prison known as Supermax, where death row inmates are housed, Keeler was greeted warmly by several members of Maryland's Citizens Against State Executions. He left the prison 25 minutes later and walked down Madison Street to the plaza outside the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center, where death penalty opponents have regularly gathered in protest for at least eight years.

Of his meeting with Baker, Keeler said, "The opportunity presented itself, so I was very happy to take advantage of it."

He emphasized that Catholic leaders have opposed the death penalty for a quarter of a century. He twice referred to Pope John Paul II's remarks on the subject in 1999 during a visit to St. Louis, saying the pope was clear that the use of capital punishment is "really sending the wrong message about the sacredness of human life."

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