- The Washington Times - Monday, May 13, 2002

ANNAPOLIS When the first European settlers arrived in Maryland in the 1600s, they brought the death penalty with them.
Murder, witchcraft, blasphemy, even the theft of property worth more than 10 pence earned a miscreant the noose.
As onlookers watched, the victim was placed in a horse-drawn cart, a rope was tied around his neck and the cart was driven away, leaving him to strangle slowly to death.
Three and one-half centuries later, the death penalty is used more sparingly, and executions are no longer public spectacles. Only a few witnesses watch as a deadly mix of chemicals is injected into a murderer's body, bringing what is said to be a quick and painless death.
But capital punishment remains deeply embedded in Maryland's criminal justice system, despite efforts over the years to abolish it.
Death penalty opponents achieved a victory last week when Gov. Parris N. Glendening imposed a moratorium on executions for the rest of his term, which ends in January. The governor said the moratorium should stay in place until the legislature has seen a study to be released in September that examines the possibility of racial bias in the imposition of the death penalty.
But there is no guarantee the temporary victory can be made permanent, even though Maryland would seem to be fertile ground for abolishing capital punishment.
The state is heavily Democratic, and many of its leaders lay claim to a progressive political philosophy.
It has a large black population 27.9 percent of the population in the 2000 census and black lawmakers, who overwhelmingly oppose the death penalty, make up 21 percent of the legislature.
Maryland also has a large Catholic population, and the bishops who govern the church in Maryland have put their full weight behind the movement to abolish capital punishment.
But abolitionists have been unable to develop any real legislative momentum.
They failed during the 2001 legislative session to persuade lawmakers to impose a moratorium on the death penalty while the state completes its racial-bias study. And capital punishment wasn't even an issue in the 2002 session that ended April 8.
Sen. Walter Baker, Cecil Democrat and a staunch supporter of capital punishment, said there's no mystery about the lack of support to end it.
"These activist groups are advocating something that the people don't want," he said. "It's because the people are not behind them that they've been unsuccessful all these years."
Mr. Baker believes that a majority of Marylanders agree with him that execution of criminals is a deterrent to murder, and that some crimes are so heinous they justify taking a life.
Delegate Salima Marriott, Baltimore Democrat, an equally strong opponent of capital punishment, has another theory. It traces back to George Bush's success in using the death penalty against Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign.
"The Democratic centrists like Clinton, like Gore, like Glendening have used this to bring themselves to the political center," Mrs. Marriott said. "I think they do it so they can say, 'We're not soft on crime.'"
She is encouraged by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's recent call for a moratorium and by the governor's decision to halt executions, even though both Democrats say they still support limited use of the punishment in particularly vicious crimes.
Mr. Glendening and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller say politics has nothing to do with their support for capital punishment.
"I have been for it all my life," said Mr. Miller, a Democrat whose legislative district lies mostly in predominantly black Prince George's County. In cases of especially vicious murders, society owes it to the families of victims to extract vengeance, he said.
"If there's a gallows, I'll pull the lever. If there's a gas chamber, I'll turn the valve. If it's lethal injection, I'll insert the needle," Mr. Miller said.
Mr. Glendening allowed two executions to take place since becoming governor and commuted one death sentence because he said he was not absolutely convinced that Eugene Colvin-El had committed murder. He said he has no doubt he made the right decision in all three cases.
Death penalty opponents have had some success over the years, said Richard Dowling, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference and an 18-year veteran in the battle over capital punishment.
In 1987, the conference joined with other groups to help pass legislation prohibiting the execution of juveniles. Two years later, another bill was passed prohibiting prosecutors from seeking the death penalty for mentally retarded people.
"Opposition was loud and strenuous" to both bills, Mr. Dowling said.
"Legislative leaders for the most part were reluctant observers. [Then] Gov. [William Donald] Schaefer, I think, only reluctantly signed both of those bills," Mr. Dowling said.


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