ANNAPOLIS – The House of Delegates surprised supporters of a death penalty moratorium Friday by giving preliminary approval to a favorable committee report on that bill.
While the vote does not ensure passage by the House, it is considered a good sign.
The bill would suspend state executions for two years, pending completion of a University of Maryland study of racial disparity of death penalty convictions. The study began in the fall and should be finished in September 2002. The moratorium would run a year longer so lawmakers could consider the results.
There was little debate, and no dissenters for the voice vote on the House floor, although Delegates John Arnick, D-Baltimore County, and George Owings, D-Calvert, rose after the vote to clarify their positions.
Arnick complained the bill had no language to reinstate death warrants for prisoners whose sentences would be suspended during the moratorium.
Owings wanted to confirm that executions scheduled before the bill goes into effect July 1 would go forward if the bill eventually passes.
On Wednesday afternoon, the bill cleared the House Judiciary Committee, 14-7. It had not even been scheduled for a vote, but got surprising support after very little debate, according to Delegate Kenneth Montague, D-Baltimore, a co-sponsor.
There was no discussion because everyone knows where they stand on this bill, said Delegate Kevin Kelly, D-Allegany, one committee opponent.
There is some urgency to the moratorium effort since four death row prisoners are reaching the end of their appeals process. Three have recently been denied appeals by the U.S. Supreme Court, and a circuit judge has heard and denied a final appeal from one of those, Steven Oken.
Oken was convicted of three murders in 1987, including his sister in-law, and a hotel clerk in Maine.
The state’s attorney for Baltimore County may seek a death warrant for Oken by mid-April. Oken’s final appeal to Judge James Smith was denied Wednesday.
A death warrant requires an execution be held within a five-day window, four to eight weeks from the date issued. The Department of Corrections sets the actual date and time within the window.
On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear appeals from Vernon Evans. Baltimore County Assistant State’s Attorney John Cox said he may seek a death warrant in the next two weeks.
Wesley Baker’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was denied in late February, and a Harford County Circuit judge will hold an additional hearing in early April, according to Gary Bair of the Attorney General’s office.
The appeal of the fourth, Anthony Grandison, is still pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening has the option to stay the execution temporarily, commute the death penalty to a lesser sentence – often life in prison without parole – or even issue a pardon.
The governor opposes the moratorium bill, and reviews each death sentence thoroughly, according to a spokeswoman.
Three men have been executed in Maryland, since capital punishment was reinstated here in 1978, two under Glendening’s watch including the most recent in November 1998. `
In June 2000, however, Glendening commuted the sentence of Eugene Colvin-El to a life term without parole.
The committee vote should send a “strong message” to the governor, said Delegate Sharon Grosfeld, D-Montgomery, who voted for the favorable committee report. “There should be no further executions until we know for certain that each and every case is decided justly and fairly.” – 30 – CNS-3-23-01