ANNAPOLIS – Even on his Inauguration Day, Gov. Robert Ehrlich could not escape lobbying by death penalty opponents.
A group of nearly 50 death penalty protesters stood in front of the Miller Senate Building – behind the inaugural audience – shouting throughout the entire ceremony. The majority of onlookers had to crowd forward to hear the speakers.
Their noise even caught the attention of guest speaker Jack Kemp, co- director of Empower America, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development and the 1996 GOP vice presidential nominee.
“Don’t be bothered by the little disturbance,” Kemp said. “For anybody who has been booed in front of 60,000 people in Buffalo Stadium (this is nothing),” he added, prompting laughter from the crowd.
But the demonstrators weren’t laughing. They were getting louder.
“Hey, Ehrlich, just face it, death row is racist,” they chorused.
The protesters wanted Ehrlich to extend a moratorium on executions imposed by his predecessor, former Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Ehrlich will lift the prohibition in the next few days as one of his first acts as governor, said his spokeswoman Wednesday.
Their cause was bolstered last week by the release of a University of Maryland study revealing racial bias in the ultimate penalty’s imposition.
“It’s just that simple. Ehrlich should stop (executions) pending a thorough examination,” said Michael Stark, 32, of Washington, D.C., organizer of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. “We are outraged. It’s clear there are deep problems with the death penalty . . . it’s racist, anti-poor, and uniquely barbaric.”
“Politicians they don’t care, innocent people get the chair,” they chanted.
Coming to the inauguration was a means to let lawmakers and constituents know that the controversy surrounding the application of the death penalty is not resolved, they said.
“It’s more important to find anyone guilty of murdering a white victim than it is to convict a black (person),” said John Gilliam-Price, 34, of Baltimore. “We have fought since 1998 to ensure no more will be executed and we are here to show opposition to executing the innocent,” he said.
Gilliam-Price is the brother-in-law to Tyrone Gilliam, who was the last person in Maryland executed in 1998 for the 1995 murder of Christine Doerfler.
“Maryland’s death penalty needs to go,” said Stephanie Gibson, associate communications professor at the University of Baltimore. “We think the governor needs to pay attention to the university study. He also needs to take a lesson from the active courage of Gov. George Ryan in Illinois.”
In the waning days of his term last week, outgoing Illinois Republican Ryan commuted 167 death sentences and pardoned four men after DNA evidence proved their innocence.
Maryland lawmakers are trying to force a moratorium with legislation. Sponsors, including Delegate Salima S. Marriott, D-Baltimore and Sen. Ralph M. Hughes, D-Baltimore, wanted the General Assembly to decide if the death penalty law should be changed after reviewing the findings of the university study.