ANNAPOLIS – Now that Lt. Gov. Michael Steele has announced his U.S. Senate candidacy, he won’t be able to avoid the issue of the death penalty, an issue he’s sidestepped as Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s governing partner.
This week, prosecutors are expected to issue an execution warrant for Wesley Baker, and death penalty foes plan to look to Steele — a Catholic who’s been outspoken on execution in the past — for support for their cause.
“There’s going to be, I think, a lot of pressure on the lieutenant governor,” said Cathy Knepper, the Maryland state death penalty abolition coordinator for Amnesty International.
Wednesday, Nov. 2, marks 30 days since the Maryland Court of Appeals rejected death row inmate Wesley Baker’s last available appeal. The opinion now becomes a mandate and the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s office will be looking to issue a warrant for Baker’s execution.
If the warrant comes, many activists like Knepper who disapprove of the death penalty will look to Steele to follow through on his almost three-year-old promises to look further into findings of racial disparity in Maryland’s past and pending executions.
After announcing he will pursue the Republican nomination for Sen. Paul Sarbanes’, D-Md., Senate seat, some say he could at least voice his opinions as an independent candidate.
“Once you announce, he’s seen as a candidate and he needs to state his position,” said Delegate Salima Siler Marriott, D-Baltimore, a leading legislative opponent of the death penalty. “He’s an independent being.”
In 2003, in the wake of Ehrlich lifting Gov. Parris Glendening’s moratorium on state executions, the University of Maryland released a study many felt proved Maryland’s death penalty biases – both by race and location.
The study showed that black killers of white victims are nearly four times as likely to be sentenced to death than blacks who murder blacks. The report also revealed that the most death sentences come from Baltimore County courts.
Steele told The Washington Post in January 2003, “This report demonstrates the necessity for a closer look at how we handle these cases” and suggested commissioning another study.
And Gov. Robert Ehrlich, in a press release dated January 28, 2003, assigned Steele to “build on the conclusions of the recently completed analysis” and promised his No. 2 would meet with representatives of the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association (MSAA) and other interested parties.
In March 2003, Steele was named as the would-be chairman of the proposed Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, which failed in the Senate by one vote, something Delegate Darryl A. Kelley, D-Prince George’s, who introduced similar legislation in the House, attributes to legislators’ fears of being seen as soft on crime.
Since then, the lieutenant governor has kept quiet on the issue, responding only when addressed by the press.
Steele never did meet with the MSAA on this topic, and death penalty activists found it difficult to get meetings with Steele.
“It took me so long and I had to work so hard” to meet with him, Knepper said. And she did, for about an hour and half in January 2004. And although she was pleased with the meeting itself, she was disappointed that no action followed.
“His personal inclinations are very different than the line he must take,” Knepper said. “If he was the governor, it would be a lot different.”
But he’s not, says Richard Dowling, director of the Maryland Catholic Conference.
“When he accepted that position (as lieutenant governor), he signed on to support the Ehrlich agenda,” Dowling said. “It’s not a lieutenant governor’s job to … publicly take a position that’s opposed to the guy that hired him.”
Baker, who marked his 13th year on death row as of Oct. 30, fulfills both the racial and geographic biases found in the Maryland study and could present an opportunity for Steele to take a stand as a senatorial candidate and distance himself from the stance of the Ehrlich administration. The only other inmate executed during Ehrlich’s administration, Steven Oken, also was from Baltimore County, but was white.
Leonardo Alcivar, Steele’s campaign press secretary, said the lieutenant governor’s position of personal opposition to the death penalty “remains unchanged.”
“That is his position as lieutenant governor and as a Senate candidate,” Alcivar said, though he would not speak further or allow Steele to speak.
It is Steele’s absence on the issue that gets Marriott riled again.
“He’s opposed to the death penalty and he’s been absolutely silent on the issue,” Marriott said. “How can he avoid it?”
Christopher Foreman, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, said, “The escape hatch for him may simply be that the death penalty is not a federal issue” and he’s running for federal office.
He’s not likely to seek out the issue, Foreman said, but it may seek him out.
“He’s not running as the No. 2 man on the ticket,” Foreman said. “It’s possible that if we have a pending execution that is controversial, that could then bleed over into the campaign.”
Baltimore County will wait for the mandate to issue a death warrant, said Assistant State’s Attorney for Baltimore County Ann Brobst, but she could not give a date.
“That time will come,” she said.
“At some point in capital litigation, a warrant is supposed to issue because all the appeals have ended,” Brobst said. “It’s not like we’re rushing to judgment here. This man has been under penalty of death for…years now. We’re not going to do anything to stop that.”
“What we have to hope and pray for is that he will persuasively move the governor in his private conversations,” Dowling said. “Cause that’s all we’re going to get.” – 30 – – CNS-11-1-05