Waiting for Mr. Steele's life-and-death memo

December 04, 2005|By C. FRASER SMITH

There's no real hint of friction between them, but life is about to get complicated for Maryland's most prominent political partners, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele.

Money may not be a problem for either man, but issues could be.

With the help of President Bush, Mr. Steele raised $500,000 last week for his 2006 U.S. Senate campaign.

After speaking to midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy, the president helicoptered up to M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore to stimulate the check-writing instincts of Maryland's Republican faithful.

Governor Ehrlich did not come to the fundraiser, staying behind for a Board of Public Works meeting. No offense intended, apparently, but these two very compatible partners, Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Steele, are likely to be separated more as time goes by.

At the moment, for example, there is the impending execution of convicted murderer Wesley Eugene Baker.

Mr. Steele, an opponent of the death penalty, finds himself in awkward if so far muted conflict with Governor Ehrlich, who generally supports capital punishment. Until now, differences of this sort have been a bit abstract. Different views on the death penalty were even helpful politically because each man covered an important point on the issue spectrum. One was "tough on crime," the other opposed capital punishment.

Now, though, it's about life and death. Politics are one thing, governing another.

The conflict moved up another notch with the visible intervention of Cardinal William H. Keeler, who visited the condemned man last week and then urged the governor to spare him.

Mr. Steele's difficulties are at least threefold. He doesn't want to upset Mr. Ehrlich, his friend and patron. He's a Catholic who once studied for the priesthood. And in his Senate race, he needs support from black voters - many of whom see the death penalty as racially biased.

The lieutenant governor has tried to sidestep the issue by pointing out that it's the governor's responsibility. He's right, but many may expect Mr. Steele to be a more passionate spokesman for his position.

The dilemma raises yet another question: How seriously are these two men confronting issues of importance to the people of Maryland?

The question arises because Mr. Steele undertook a review of the death penalty in Maryland and the criticisms raised by Raymond Paternoster, a University of Maryland professor who says the penalty is applied in a way that suggests racial and geographic bias. If you're black and you've killed a white person, you're more likely to be sentenced to death. If you live in Baltimore County, you're very likely to hear that sentence in a capital case. In the adjacent city, Baltimore, you're almost never going to hear it.

Asked for the results of his examination last week, Mr. Steele said he had interviewed some people and spoken to some interest groups. He said he was going to give the governor a memo in January. A memo? In January? Mr. Baker is scheduled to die this week.

Governor Ehrlich must decide now. Was the professor's study flawed? Or are there problems that should be addressed before someone else is executed?

This condemned man may deserve death at the hands of the state as richly as anyone in his position ever has. He killed a grandmother in front her grandchildren.

But his lawyers have urged mercy because the murderer apparently had precious little nurturing from his own grandmothers or his mother and father. He had been neglected and abused. And these facts were not put before the sentencing authority. Confronted by similar questions, other states have put executions on hold. Maryland, too, had a moratorium until Mr. Ehrlich called it off.

Now the fate of a man - and the concerns of citizens for or against the death penalty - are in the hands of two leaders who don't agree and who haven't completed a promised study. How can an execution go forward under such circumstances?

It's an important matter for the people of Maryland and a political team whose interests have reached a fork in the road.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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