ANNAPOLIS – He agreed to the meeting, but they didn’t change his mind.
In 1993, Gov. William Donald Schaefer walked out of a 45-minute meeting with 11 church leaders and said he would sign a death warrant for confessed triple murderer John F. Thanos, despite the religious pleas for mercy.
“It is not my intention under any circumstances to intervene,” Schaefer told reporters as he left the meeting, authorizing the state’s first execution in 33 years.
Maryland’s governors routinely commuted death sentences to life until Schaefer, a self-described tough-on-crime governor, ended the tradition.
Maryland’s use of the death penalty has been erratic throughout its history. Whether the state strictly enforced the use of capital punishment has depended on the governor’s personal beliefs and the prevailing national attitude, according an analysis by Capital News Service.
Nearly 80 years after the first state-sanctioned execution, Maryland continues to be conflicted about its use of the ultimate sentence. Foes argue for a moratorium, a lame-duck governor simultaneously supports the penalty and uses it sparingly, and the state awaits a new governor with a new attitude.
“We want a safe society but we also want a just society,” said Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, who is in his last year as governor. “Trying to find that balance is very difficult.”
Weighing those two factors – a safe and just society – has been a longstanding problem for Maryland’s governors, who play a crucial role in the application of the death penalty because of their power to grant clemency.
Entering into gubernatorial and public judgment is the racial disparity of death sentences and murder cases overturned by genetic evidence clearing the accused.
Maryland was the first state to release a death row inmate because of genetic testing. In 1993, Kirk Bloodsworth’s rape and murder convictions were overturned after DNA evidence of the crime could not be matched to his. Bloodsworth, who is white, received a full pardon from Schaefer.
Two-thirds of the convicts on Maryland’s death row, however, are black.
These issues have prompted Glendening to fund a two-year study of the state’s death penalty system. Glendening said the study, due this fall, will reveal whether capital punishment has been used fairly in Maryland.
Since the 1920s, the state has executed 83 people.
The state began overseeing executions in 1923 after Gov. Albert C. Ritchie signed the “Death Chamber Bill,” taking the right to perform public executions away from localities. The growing number of mob-sanctioned public hangings held throughout the state necessitated the change.
The racially-charged lynchings were becoming a public hazard as “extreme” racism plagued the state, said George H. Callcott, history professor at the University of Maryland College Park and author of “Maryland, A History.”
Maryland began by executing a few men a year until 1940. The rate of executions increased sharply after Herbert O’Conor was elected to office in 1939. O’Conor, who held strong anti-Communist beliefs and worked as a state prosecutor, signed more death warrants than any other governor in state history.
“Many Americans were dying in World War II,” said Callcott. “It was a time of `chop off their heads.'”
Thirty-four men were executed by the state during O’Conor’s tenure, which ended in 1947.
Maryland continued frequent executions until the use of the death penalty tapered off dramatically in the 1950s and 1960s.
Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin, first elected governor in 1950, executed only four men during his term.
He was a “spirit-minded man and very concerned with human rights,” Callcott said. McKeldin wrote in his memoir that allowing the executions was the worst decision he ever made.
Legal wrangling in the 60s, along with the civil rights movement and intense focus on human rights, halted executions in the state in 1961.
Then, a 1972 Supreme Court case ruled Maryland and 39 other states’ death penalty statues unconstitutional. There were no factors to distinguish between those sentenced to the death penalty and others sentenced to life in prison, the court said.
The court reflected the nation’s divided soul on the issue in a 5-to-4- split opinion.
The ruling created one of the most complex opinions in legal history, said Michael Mello, law professor at Vermont Law School.
In 1978, the Maryland General Assembly, without much controversy, enacted a new capital punishment law, pushed by acting Gov. Blair Lee III.
Capital punishment could be applied to: a contract killing, murder of a police officer, murder by a prison inmate, murder during a jail escape, kidnapping, child abduction, robbery or arson; murder by a person under a sentence of death or life imprisonment or when more than one murder is committed.
“Lee was not an ideological person,” Callcott said. “I expect he was persuaded of the need for the death penalty.”
Lee’s move was politically savvy. In the 1980s, politicians who were not in support of the death penalty had a hard time getting elected, said Phoebe Ellsworth, professor of law and psychology at the University of Michigan.
“It was a different time,” said Blair Lee IV, the governor’s son and a newspaper columnist. “It passed overwhelmingly.”
The situation is more complex today. In 2001, the Maryland House of Delegates passed a death penalty moratorium, but the proposal failed after a last-minute filibuster in the Senate.
Glendening has refused to use his executive powers to declare a moratorium, signing two death warrants. But the governor commuted a third sentence to life in prison because the conviction was based solely on circumstantial evidence.
It is likely that Glendening will review other capital cases before he leaves office, continuing the state’s meandering history with capital punishment.
“Like most citizens I am concerned…,” Glendening said. “When you read about some of the horrible crimes, which continue, you just get this gut-level feeling of outrage.
At the same time when you read about some of the miscarriages of justice the findings of people being clearly innocent across the country … you have that same gut-level feeling of outrage.”
– 30 – CNS 4/25/02