Clemency and justice

November 30, 2005

The state intends to execute Wesley Eugene Baker in a week's time. Cardinal William H. Keeler's visit with the 47-year-old convicted murderer on Maryland's death row has conveyed in a powerful way how little time is left to convince a court or the governor to halt the execution.

The cardinal opposes the death penalty because of his faith. But as a citizen of Maryland, he and others recognize that the state's capital punishment system remains suspect. It has been criticized in an exhaustive study by a University of Maryland researcher. Neither a court nor Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has fully evaluated the 2003 study's claims and determined the credibility of the system. Absent such a finding, the public has ample reason to question the law's integrity .

Maryland isn't the only state in which doubts have been raised about the implementation of the death penalty. Virginia, California and Texas are the most recent examples, with the latter reacting to shocking new reports that an innocent man was executed in 1993. The controversy in Maryland emanates from a state-commissioned analysis by Raymond Paternoster that found racial and geographic bias in the death penalty system. The study concluded that defendants who kill white people are more likely to be charged with capital murder and sentenced to death than are murderers whose victims are not white. The study also found that prosecutors in some counties, notably Baltimore County, were more likely to seek the death penalty than their counterparts in other areas of the state. The Baker case fits two of Paternoster's indicators: He is a black defendant convicted of killing a white grandmother in a Baltimore County parking lot.

The Ehrlich administration has ignored the Paternoster study for the most part, choosing instead to review each death row case for possible clemency. Cardinal Keeler has appealed to Mr. Ehrlich to spare Wesley Baker's life and exercise mercy by converting his death sentence to life without parole.

The circumstances of Jane Tyson's 1991 murder were certainly brutal, but the execution of Baker, born as a result of the rape of a 12-year-old girl, should give the governor pause for another reason. A runaway who had been neglected and abused, Baker had repeated encounters with the juvenile justice system that Mr. Ehrlich is intent on reforming. His attorneys argue that Baker's trial lawyers failed to adequately present the awful circumstances of his young life during sentencing, as required by a recent Supreme Court ruling in another Maryland case.

In reviewing the Baker case, Mr. Ehrlich should consider the words of another Republican governor, Theodore McKeldin, who, when faced with the same decision, said in 1959: "No one can be sure exactly what justice is, but I do know what mercy is. When it comes to determining the fate of a human being, I would rather err on the side of mercy than to mistake justice."

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