Ehrlich says decision on execution was difficult


Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that the decision to allow this week the second execution of his term came after extensive review of the case and consideration of the views of death penalty opponents, including Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele and Cardinal William H. Keeler.

Ehrlich said he ultimately concluded that capital punishment was warranted for Wesley Eugene Baker because of the heinousness of the murder he committed, the lack of doubt about his guilt and the absence of evidence of racial bias in his case.

Still, the governor said he agonized over the decision.

"Days such as yesterday serve as a reminder that this is a job where you're going to impact lives," Ehrlich said.

Steele, an anti-death penalty Roman Catholic whose division with the governor over capital punishment has come under more scrutiny since he became a candidate for the U.S. Senate, said he participated extensively in discussions with Ehrlich over the Baker case.

The lieutenant governor, who has said he would give Ehrlich a report on the death penalty next month that was promised shortly after Ehrlich's 2003 inauguration, said he has met with victims' families in other cases to gain a better understanding of the issue. But he said his conviction as a death penalty opponent remains solid.

"I'm also cognizant of another life in the mix," Steele said.

Baker's execution comes amid increasing national attention to capital punishment, centered around the 1,000th execution since the Supreme Court declared the practice was legal in 1976. Ehrlich's decision comes a week after Virginia Gov. Mark Warner decided to stop an execution and just as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is considering whether to allow the execution next week of a gang leader who has become an anti-gang crusader on death row.

Halted by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, executions resumed in Maryland under Ehrlich despite a 2003 University of Maryland professor's study that concluded that the state's death penalty system suffered from racial and geographic biases. The two Democrats vying to run against Ehrlich hold different views from each other and the governor about how the death penalty should be administered.

But Ehrlich said his decision was based on specifics of the case, not politics.

The governor said he read about the case extensively, reviewed motions and pleas from the prosecution and the defense, considered the court rulings and discussed the details with senior staff members. He said he also took into account the views of Keeler and Steele, both of whose opinions Ehrlich said he respects.

Monday night, less than an hour before the execution, the governor issued a statement saying he declined to intervene but gave no indication of his thoughts in the case.

Yesterday, he said the nature of the crime was a strong factor in his decision. Baker was convicted of shooting a 49-year-old Baltimore County teacher's aide in the head in 1991 while her two young grandchildren watched.

Jane Tyson had just ushered her grandchildren into her car after shopping at Westview Mall when Baker shot her through the window of her Buick.

Ehrlich said he could see an argument for clemency in a robbery gone bad, but that's not what happened to Tyson, he said.

"This wasn't a robbery gone bad. This was an execution and then a robbery," Ehrlich said.

Ehrlich said he also took into account the fact that the case had never been overturned on appeal and that there was no doubt about Baker's guilt.

He said circumstances might be different if he were faced with a decision like the one Warner made last week. In that case, potentially exculpatory evidence had been destroyed.

"That would be a cause to have serious second thoughts," Ehrlich said.

But questions in Baker's case about fairness in applying Maryland's death penalty - which prompted Glendening's moratorium - did not weigh heavily on Ehrlich.

Yesterday, Ehrlich said he considers accusations of racial bias important but found no evidence of such problems in this case. He said he dismisses arguments about geographic bias as irrelevant.

He said a strong case could be made that Baltimore County prosecutors, who have long pursued the death penalty in every eligible case, apply the system more neutrally than their peers in other jurisdictions. Such a policy leaves no room for individual bias, he said.

Furthermore, he added, it makes sense that the elected state's attorneys in different jurisdictions would have different policies.

Both of Ehrlich's prospective opponents in next year's race have questioned the application of Maryland's death penalty, and one of them, Mayor Martin O'Malley, opposes capital punishment in general.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan supports the death penalty but believes that the University of Maryland study "has raised real and genuine concerns about the application of the death penalty in Maryland that have not been addressed by the current governor," said his spokeswoman, Jody Couser.

O'Malley, who is Catholic, opposes the death penalty on religious grounds and is concerned about the way it has been administered in Maryland, said his campaign manager, Jonathan Epstein. But that doesn't mean O'Malley would halt all executions if he were governor, Epstein said.

"He believes these types of criminals should serve hard time for the rest of their lives without parole," Epstein said. "But as governor, he would look at the circumstances of each case and apply the law of our state, including signing a death warrant if merited."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.