Steele calls for further study of death penalty

He completes 3-year investigation and says a group should examine fairness, accuracy


After three years of study into Maryland's use of capital punishment, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele announced yesterday that he wants another study.

He said a work group should study potential sources of flaws in the death penalty system, an acknowledgement of broader possible flaws than those that sparked a one-year moratorium on executions in 2002.

Although the results of Steele's inquiry came later than death penalty critics hoped and didn't include a direct condemnation of executions, the lieutenant governor's move is being seen by both sides of the debate as a blow to capital punishment in Maryland.

Steele, a former seminarian who opposes capital punishment on religious grounds, gave Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. a report of his findings Friday in a confidential memorandum.

In a statement yesterday, Steele said he wants a broad-based group, representing the state's legal system and advocates on both sides of the issue, to investigate the fairness and accuracy of executions in Maryland. He did not suggest a timeline for the study or say whether executions should stop in the meantime.

"Whether one supports or opposes the death penalty, all reasonable people understand that before the State exercises the ultimate sanction, we must be confident that the system is fair and accurate," Steele said in a statement. "This memorandum is my attempt to make sure that Marylanders ultimately have a system they trust to be fair, accurate and just for both the guilty and the innocent."

A spokeswoman for Ehrlich said the governor would not comment on Steele's report until he has had time to study it.

Steele said in an interview with reporters in November that he had conducted interviews for his study with advocates for victims' families and with members of anti-death-penalty groups. He did not hold public hearings. He said then that he had planned to send a memo with his findings to Ehrlich in January.

Steele's statement yesterday noted "pressing issues that could contribute to incorrect and unfair death sentences in Maryland - mistaken eyewitness identifications; false confessions; negligence, misconduct and poor training in forensic laboratories; use of jailhouse and other informants; ineffective assistance of counsel; prosecutorial discretion and conduct; and racial, economic and geographic disparities."

The statement did not elaborate on the potential flaws, and a spokesman for Steele did not respond to a request for an interview with the lieutenant governor yesterday.

Death penalty foes said yesterday that they see Steele's statement as a key step to stopping executions in Maryland.

"It's a good thing, and he should be commended for it," said Terry Fitzgerald, an organizer with the Baltimore Campaign to End the Death Penalty. "It's taken three years, and they've killed two people since then, but it's a good thing."

Ehrlich has signed two death warrants since taking office, and death penalty foes have expressed disappointment that Steele hasn't taken a more public stand in opposition to those executions. Steele said at the time that he gave his counsel to the governor privately.

Fitzgerald said an important element of Steele's statement is that he is calling for a much broader analysis of the death penalty than the one Gov. Parris N. Glendening ordered in 2002. That study examined possible racial and demographic disparities in how the death penalty is administered. It concluded that blacks who kill whites are much more likely to receive the death penalty than any other group and that criminals are more likely to be sentenced to death in Baltimore County than anywhere else in the state.

Glendening ordered a halt to executions while the study was conducted. When it was released in 2003, Ehrlich did not extend the moratorium. Since then, the state has executed Steven Oken and Wesley Baker, both convicted of murders in Baltimore County.

Michael Stark, a spokesman for the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, said the questions Steele is asking the panel to investigate are similar to those that led to a halt to executions - and ultimately the commutations of all death sentences - in Illinois.

Stark said it would be difficult for Ehrlich to justify executions while such a study took place.

"With each of these things, if you're studying them then you're entertaining the possibility that flaws exist," Stark said. "If there is a possibility that flaws exist, then all of them warrant a halt to executions until there is clarity on these matters."

Steele, the likely Republican nominee for U.S. Senate this fall, has worked in recent months to establish a public identity separate from Ehrlich.

Fred Romano, whose sister, Dawn Garvin, was killed by Oken, said he was upset by Steele's action. Romano said he saw nothing in his fight, more than a decade long, to have Oken's sentence carried out that led him to believe the system is unfair.

"It's a stall tactic is all it is," Romano said of Steele's statement. "When you're convicted, you're not going to be put to death in the state of Maryland for 15-20 years. If you can't prove you're innocent in 15-20 years, you're not innocent. ... They've been given every fair shake."

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