ANNAPOLIS, Md. – With Gov. Robert Ehrlich poised to permit the first Maryland execution in five years, his administration is planning to create a death penalty review panel with Lt. Gov. Michael Steele at the head of the table, an administration spokeswoman said.
A death warrant from Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge John G. Turnbull II is expected to be signed Monday for Steven H. Oken, a court clerk said, which would effectively put an end to Maryland's unofficial death penalty moratorium.
"When the death warrant comes to [Ehrlich's] desk, he will sign it," said Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver.
However, DeLeaver said, the governor is "adamant that no person will be executed until there is a thorough review of their case."
"The governor said that each case will be reviewed, if not by him then by a commission, which would which would be headed by Lt. Gov. Steele," DeLeaver added.
"[The death warrant] is not signed, but looks to be scheduled for Monday," said Dan Radebaugh, Turnbull's law clerk.
Even without the death warrant in hand, Fred Bennett, Oken's defense lawyer, is already planning an appeal.
"We will be filing litigation in the circuit court shortly, but it isn't prepared yet," Bennett said.
Oken was convicted in 1991 for the 1987 murder of Dawn Marie Garvin, then a newlywed from White Marsh. Oken could be executed the week of March 17, making him the first Maryland inmate to be put to death since 1998.
As far as Steele is concerned, "the moratorium is still in place" and the death warrant for Oken "is a separate issue."
Steele, the state's first black lieutenant governor, may be in an odd position with the death penalty. Maryland's Legislative Black Caucus strongly opposes the sentence, particularly since a recent University of Maryland study found racial and geographic disparity in its application. As the state's highest black elected official, others are looking to him for leadership.
However, his boss is a strong supporter of the death penalty.
Ehrlich championed the death penalty throughout his campaign and has consistently said he would not continue a ban on executions.
Several members of the Legislative Black Caucus have sponsored emergency bills to keep a moratorium, based on the disparities revealed in the Maryland study.
"I am terribly saddened that we would hastily continue executions, especially with the university report," said LBC Chairman Obie Patterson, a Democratic state delegate. "I just feel our system is so unfair and needs to be looked at."
The university study revealed blacks who kill whites are more likely to get a death sentence than whites who kill whites or blacks who kill blacks.
"Our real goal is to keep the moratorium on the death penalty," said the Caucus' Democratic treasurer, state Sen. Nathaniel Exum. Exum sponsored a bill to make the guidelines for issuing a death sentence stricter.
Technically, a moratorium doesn't exist.
In May 2002, then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening issued a stay of execution for death row inmate Wesley E. Baker -- convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1992 -- pending review of the university study.
The decision followed one by then-Illinois Gov. George Ryan to suspend all death penalty sentences until each case could be reviewed. Ryan's last act as governor last week was to commute all the death penalty sentences.
As a result of the stays, Glendening would not review death penalty cases until the study was finished, creating a de facto moratorium.
"If we're not able to extend the moratorium, which is my preferred option, I think we should have a higher standard of proof for evidence ... This raises the threshold," said Democratic state Sen. Paul G. Pinsky. "With something as serious as sending someone to death row we ought to have a higher standard."
Raymond Paternoster, who conducted the study, admitted to The Associated Press that he "didn't think hard enough about implications when he agreed to undertake the state-commissioned study" and that he intended to present his report without getting drawn into policy debates.
"[Paternoster] wasn't asked for his opinion, he was asked to analyze statistics," Pinsky said. "Data is data and if it leads to certain conclusions, then so be it. He did the investigation and here are the numbers. I wouldn't read a whole lot into it."
Meanwhile, another bill introduced in the House Wednesday would make killing an off-duty law enforcement officer in retaliation for what that officer did while on duty subject to the death penalty.
"I believe in the death penalty and I think that we can expand it in that regard," said Republican Delegate Carmen Amedori. "I think that it's on the minds of several police officers. We cover them on duty and we should cover them off duty."