Too silent too long

April 18, 2006

For all the time he apparently spent reviewing the state's use of the death penalty, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele didn't tell Marylanders anything they didn't already know. For all the people he apparently interviewed on the subject, Mr. Steele hasn't advanced the debate in any substantive or constructive way.

In the end, after all his studying, he recommended ... another study, which is basically what he called for in 2003. Mr. Steele conveniently issued his findings in a confidential memo to his boss Friday and, in a statement, reiterated problems previously identified during the national debate on the death penalty: wrong eyewitnesses, poor lawyering, faulty forensic evidence, and racial and geographic disparities.

To call for another study without insisting on a moratorium on executions shows the lieutenant governor's inability to make a tough call. He may be opposed to the death penalty on religious grounds, but he's clearly politically willing to have another prisoner executed in the interim. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. opposes a moratorium.

The conclusion of Mr. Steele's review of the death penalty also is suspect.

For most of his time in office, he has refused to speak publicly about the subject after his very candid call in the early days of the Ehrlich administration to investigate the inequities in Maryland's imposition of the death penalty. Now he is in the midst of a U.S. Senate campaign where he has been criticized for not letting voters know where he stands on issues. He shared his findings after the conclusion of the state legislative session - when death penalty opponents might have had a chance to lobby for a halt to state executions.

For the past three years, Mr. Steele could have been a forceful advocate for correcting the inequities in Maryland's use of the death penalty, which have been documented in a well-discussed 2002 University of Maryland study and four prior ones. His silence can't be excused.

Is this the best Mr. Steele can muster on an issue about which he feels deeply? At the very least, he should make public his memo so Marylanders can assess how effective or ineffective he has been.

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