Death penalty foes target Steele in ad campaign to sway Ehrlich

November 30, 2005|By JENNIFER MCMENAMIN AND KELLY BREWINGTON | JENNIFER MCMENAMIN AND KELLY BREWINGTON,SUN REPORTERS

Death penalty opponents hoping to win clemency for a convicted killer scheduled to be executed next week unveiled an advertising campaign yesterday aimed at pressuring not only Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. but also Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a longtime opponent of capital punishment.

The ad campaign calls on Ehrlich and Steele to halt next week's scheduled execution of Wesley Eugene Baker and commute his sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The drive came as Virginia's governor spared a convicted killer who would have been the 1,000th person executed since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

The Maryland radio and print ads, which mention a study that found racial and geographic disparities in the state's application of the death penalty, urge people to call the governor's office.

Although the decision on whether clemency should be extended lies solely with the governor, the group included Steele in its campaign because he has voiced his objection to the death penalty and is the governor's No. 2 man, anti-death penalty activists involved with the ad campaign said yesterday.

"He is Catholic. He was a seminarian. So he is probably an ardent opponent of the death penalty. We would also hope that he can convince the governor," said state Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat. "We're really relying on the lieutenant governor to help us with the governor. I'm keeping my fingers crossed."

Steele, who is running for the U.S. Senate, said yesterday that he has spoken to Ehrlich about the Baker case, but he reiterated that the governor has the final word on the matter.

"I respect his office and his decision," Steele said yesterday, speaking to reporters after the presentation of a business loan to a Baltimore restaurant.

"The process has not changed. These issues were brought to the governor and I shared with him my views. And I believe he understands my perspective."

Steele would not elaborate on his discussions with Ehrlich.

And as some asked yesterday what had become of Steele's promise to examine the use of the death penalty in Maryland, the lieutenant governor said that he has conducted interviews with advocates for victims' families and with members of anti-death penalty groups and will deliver a memo to Ehrlich in January detailing his findings.

Several religious leaders, including Cardinal William H. Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore, have called for Ehrlich to commute Baker's death sentence. Keeler met Monday with Baker on death row and, along with the state's other top Catholic leaders, signed a letter asking that Ehrlich spare Baker.

Ehrlich said yesterday that he understood the cardinal's position and had taken his letter under advisement. But he gave no indication that he was prepared to intervene to stop the execution.

In the Virginia case, Gov. Mark Warner commuted the death sentence of a man who stabbed another to death with a pair of scissors during a pool hall robbery. In reducing the penalty to life in prison without parole, Warner noted that evidence had been improperly destroyed, depriving the defense of the opportunity to subject it to the latest DNA testing.

In Ohio, a man who strangled his mother-in-law and suffocated his 5-year-old stepdaughter was executed yesterday, the 999th person put to death since 1976. The Virginia governor's action means that the 1,000th execution could occur Friday in North Carolina, where a man is scheduled to be put to death for killing his estranged wife and her father.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is weighing the case of Stanley Tookie Williams, co-founder of the Crips gang and a four-time murderer who has become an anti-gang crusader and Nobel Peace Prize nominee. Williams is scheduled to be executed Dec. 13.

In Maryland, Baker, 47, is scheduled to be executed 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 on June 6, 1991. He would be the first African-American executed since a University of Maryland study found racial and geographic disparities in the state's administration of the death penalty.

Lawyers for Baker continue to mount legal challenges to have his death sentence overturned. Among their petitions is a request that the Supreme Court review Maryland courts' denials of Baker's appeals based on the death penalty study.

Gladden, a Baltimore public defender and state senator who has sponsored failed legislation to repeal the death penalty, said there are too many questions about the use of capital punishment in the state and across the country to proceed with executions.

"It is not only unfair and unjust to impose the death penalty in the state of Maryland," she said at a news conference outside the State House, "it is racist."

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