Maryland Governor Declares Death Penalty Moratorium
Feature Story by Teresa Kraly - 5/20/2002
On May 9, Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening (D) declared a moratorium on executions in the state until a University of Maryland study on racial and geographic bias in death sentences is completed and the state legislature can review and debate its results.
The declaration came moments after Glendening suspended the execution of Wesley Eugene Baker, 44, who had been scheduled to die by lethal injection this week, and two years after Illinois' Gov. George Ryan (R) imposed a similar moratorium after 13 death row inmates were wrongfully convicted by that state’s justice system.
Gov. Ryan simultaneously announced the creation of a Commission on Capital Punishment, with a mission to study the death penalty in Illinois and develop recommendations for reform. In April 2002, the Governor’s commission released its report that contained 85 recommendations and called into question the general fairness of the state’s imposition of the ultimate punishment.
Maryland’s Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who is running to succeed Glendening in the fall election, had advocated the moratorium. She argued that to perform the execution without knowing the results of the University of Maryland study would be wrong. Both Townsend and Glendening are death penalty supporters.
The moratoriums, declared by two pro-capital punishment governors, evidence a growing concern about the prevalence of bias and error in the imposition of the death penalty across the country. In addition to these executive actions, the issue of death penalty fairness is also winding its way through the state and federal courts.
In New York, the Court of Appeals is currently considering a constitutional challenge to the state’s death penalty statute. Also, a federal district court judge in New York has recently stated that he is poised to declare the federal death penalty statute unconstitutional.
On the legislative front, legislatures in New Hampshire and Nebraska have recently passed bills to suspend or abolish the death penalty, though the respective states' governors' vetoed each. Across the country, municipalities have enacted at least 70 non-binding proposals for moratoriums.
While the Illinois moratorium and the Ryan Commission’s report has re-ignited the debate on capital punishment, Maryland is the first state to focus explicitly on the concern of racial bias in the death penalty system. Of the 13 prisoners in Maryland currently on death row, 9 are Black and 12 were convicted of murdering White victims.
In response to the Maryland announcement, Wayne Smith, Executive Director of The Justice Project said, “Glendening and Townsend add their voices to the growing concern among both pro and anti-death penalty supporters that immediate measures must be taken to guarantee fairness and prevent more wrongful convictions of innocent people. More than 100 people have been exonerated from death row. It is time for Congress to take action and pass the Innocence Protection Act, to decrease the chances that an innocent person will be executed and to put fairness back into our criminal justice system."