Md. Death Penalty Fight Continues

Anti-death penalty legislation failed in the General Assembly session that ended Monday, but Maryland lawmakers vow that the fight is far from over.

Death penalty foes tried to impose a moratorium on capital punishment, as well as to repeal it, and were unsuccessful. But several factors make them want to keep trying to abolish the state's ultimate punishment.

"We take this as a learning opportunity and will make sure that we get busy to have all of the pieces and members in line so that we can change some laws," said Kemry Hughes, chairman of the Maryland Justice Coalition. "I don't think that we weren't successful ... at least we were able to help with the discussion."

Fred Romano, founder of the Maryland Coalition for State Executions, said he was happy with the dismissal of the moratorium and the repeal.

"Next year they'll be back with the same stuff and I'll be ready for that battle next year," said Romano. "I really want to make an explosion this year ... I want to work on the appeals process." 

Romano's sister, Dawn Marie Garvin, was murdered just after getting married in 1987. Now the man convicted of her murder, Steven Oken, could be the first Maryland inmate put to death since 1998, when then-Gov. Parris Glendening ordered the moratorium on death sentences. 

"I'm not letting up my fight," said Romano. "I'm looking for justice, not closure. I can't have closure because Dawn will never come back."

Death penalty supporters have found a strong advocate in new Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who promises to allow executions and has said he is wary of a review board.

"Commissions can be useful and they can be less than useful," Ehrlich said. "I don't need a commission or a study to tell me that venue is subjective."

But death penalty opponents were energized this year by the January release of a University of Maryland study that revealed racial and geographical bias in the state's application of the sanction.

The study showed that when the race of both the victim and offender are examined together, blacks who kill whites are more likely to receive a death sentence than whites who kill whites.

The university study, ordered in 1996 after a review revealed a high number of blacks sentenced to death and a low number of prisoners whose victims were black sentenced to death, also found disparity in the way prosecutors in different jurisdictions seek the death penalty. For instance, Baltimore County seeks the death penalty more than the city of Baltimore.

While the study was being completed, Glendening refused to allow executions in the state, creating a backlog of inmates on death row.

Oken's death warrant was issued in January but has been stayed pending appeals. An appeal based on the university's study results was denied by the Court of Appeals in March. A second appeal based on Supreme Court cases will be heard in May.

The Maryland Senate also thwarted the moratorium 24-23 in March, with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.,  delivering the deciding vote.

At the same time, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee defeated a death penalty repeal, beating back an appeal by Attorney General J. Joseph Curran, who also urged Ehrlich, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele and members of the General Assembly to abolish the death penalty. Curran argued the risk of executing the innocent is too great and the penalty's application is plagued with bias.

"The real reason I took that position is that, sadly, there is a possibility of a mistake, and that is frightening," Curran said. "I would have hoped that there was a continuation of the moratorium so that there could have been a study of the results."

"Another one of the reasons I did speak out was that there could be seven executions within three months," he said. "And, it's frightening that there could be a mistake in a capital case."

In the interim, Amnesty International in Maryland will switch its focus to Steele, who is heading a commission created to review individual death row cases.

"We hoped that we could have the moratorium," said Cathy D. Knepper, Amnesty's state death penalty abolition coordinator.

"The problem is systemic and looking at it case by case does not do anything."

Steele's office did not respond to requests for comment.