- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 27, 2002

ANNAPOLIS The U.S. Supreme Court will most likely determine whether the Maryland General Assembly gets involved in an acrimonious debate this year over the death penalty.
A year ago, tempers flared and harsh words were exchanged in the Senate in the final days of the session before a bill mandating a moratorium on executions died without coming to a vote.
The bill was a top priority of members of the Legislative Black Caucus, who guided it through the House of Delegates before coming up against a filibuster threat in the Senate as time ran out in the session.
But this year, a death penalty moratorium is not a top priority of the caucus, and supporters are not sure they will bring it up before the session ends April 8.
They are waiting to see if the Supreme Court accepts an appeal from triple murderer Steven H. Oken, who is scheduled to die in March by lethal injection.
Sen. Clarence Mitchell, Baltimore Democrat and a leader of anti-death penalty forces in the state Senate, said if the Supreme Court takes the Oken case, it would effectively put all death penalty cases in Maryland on hold and there would be no need this year for a moratorium fight.
"If the appeal is denied, you will see a bill come through," he said.
Death penalty opponents can't wait too long for the Supreme Court to act if they hope to have any chance of success. Bills introduced later in the session have less chance of getting out of committees.
The Legislative Black Caucus succeeded in 1999 in getting money for a study of whether the death penalty is applied disproportionately against black defendants in Maryland. It has been trying since then to stop executions until the statistical analysis is completed, which will be sometime after the session.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, has refused to declare a moratorium, and the legislature rejected moratorium bills the last two years.
Delegate Salima Marriott, Baltimore Democrat, believes the study will show capital punishment is unfairly imposed on blacks and that it should be eliminated or at least applied fairly.
"That's what we need the moratorium for," she said.
Mr. Glendening said it is "a very, very difficult subject" for him.
"There is hardly a day that goes by that I don't think about it," the governor said at a recent news conference.
"The law mandates the death penalty in particularly horrible crimes," Mr. Glendening said. "Policy is made by the legislature. Right now, I simply must follow the law."
He said he will continue to examine each death penalty case as it comes up and will not intervene if there is clear evidence of guilt.
Oken is one of four men on Maryland's death row who have exhausted most of their appeals and could face execution in the next few months.

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