- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 28, 2003

A Baltimore County judge signed a writ yesterday allowing the state's first execution in four years, despite Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele's concern that capital punishment in Maryland is racially biased.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has encouraged Mr. Steele, the state's first black lieutenant governor, to further explore why black suspects receive more death sentences than white suspects, but said no study will stop the execution of the state's 12 death row inmates.
An Ehrlich staffer also said a study would not stop prosecutors from pursuing more death sentences.
After the decision yesterday by Judge John G. Turnball, Mr. Steele, who is Catholic, said he opposes the death penalty and remains concerned about the racial disparity in sentencing.
"If we are going to have the death penalty in Maryland, it has to be fair and just," he said. "There is a [racial] disparity that exists. Why it exists, nobody seems to know."
However, Mr. Steele also said he respected Mr. Ehrlich's pro-death penalty position, as he did during the gubernatorial race. Mr. Steele also said the guilt of the 12 inmates was beyond doubt.
Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, recently lifted a moratorium on the death penalty imposed last spring by Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
Mr. Glendening imposed the moratorium pending a study on the relationship between race and how the state dispenses death sentences.
The University of Maryland study released early this month found that prosecutors are more likely to seek the death penalty for cases in which blacks are accused of killing whites. It also found the decisions made by state's attorneys on whether to pursue the death penalty varied widely among counties, with most death sentences handed down in Baltimore County.
Eight of the inmates on the state's death row are black and four are white. The victims were white in each case. Maryland has executed three persons, two of them black, since 1978.
An Illinois study, with findings similar to Maryland's, prompted outgoing Republican Gov. George Ryan to commute the death sentence of all 156 inmates on that state's death row Jan. 11 two days before leaving office. He said death sentencing in the United States was as "arbitrary as getting hit by a bolt of lightning."
Mr. Ehrlich assigned Mr. Steele to lead a task force on the issue, but maintained his pro-death penalty stance.
"I support Maryland's current death penalty laws," he said in a written statement yesterday. "I take this responsibility very seriously and … will personally conduct a thorough and exhaustive review of each and every death penalty case in Maryland as it arises."
The first case Mr. Ehrlich will review is that of Steven Howard Oken, who was sentenced to death for the Nov. 1, 1987, murder of Dawn Marie Garvin, a 20-year-old newlywed. Oken shot Mrs. Garvin in the head after sexually assaulting her when she let him into her home to use the telephone. Oken is white.
Mrs. Garvin's murder was the start of a killing spree for Oken, who raped and murdered his sister-in-law, Patricia A. Hirt, 43, and then raped and murdered Lori E. Ward, 25, a motel clerk in Kittery, Maine. He was sentenced to death for killing Mrs. Garvin and got life sentences for the other murders. He is scheduled to be put to death at the state prison in Baltimore during the week of March 17.
Mr. Ehrlich said he instructed chief legal counsel Jervis Finney to compile information on the Oken case, so he can decide whether to grant a stay of execution.
By taking no action, Mr. Ehrlich would allow the execution to proceed as scheduled.
"I have asked Mr. Finney and a number of trusted colleagues, including Lt. Gov. Steele, to join me in a personal review of this information," Mr. Ehrlich said in the statement. "Over the coming weeks, we will meet individually and as a group to aid my decision about the final disposition of Mr. Oken's sentence."
Meanwhile, Mr. Steele will meet with prosecutors, defense attorneys and death-penalty groups to examine the reasons behind racial disparity and the need for more study. His findings will be delivered to Mr. Ehrlich in the form of a recommendation for further action.
"What is wonderful about this relationship is that we understand where each other is coming from," Mr. Steele said about his relationship with Mr. Ehrlich.
Besides Oken, three death-row inmates have exhausted their legal appeals and could be put to death by year's end. They are:
n Heath William Burch, who in 1995 killed Robert Davis, 72, and his wife, Cleo, 78, after breaking into their home. He stole the couple's pickup truck, four guns and $105. Burch is black.
n Wesley Eugene Baker, who shot Jane Tyson in the head in the parking lot of a mall outside Baltimore in 1991. He shot Mrs. Tyson and stole her purse. He was within a week of execution when the moratorium was imposed. Baker is black.
n John Marvin Booth, who murdered Rose and Irvin Bronstein in 1983. He robbed the couple and fatally stabbed them in their Baltimore home. Booth is black.
Two other death-row inmates, Anthony Grandison and Vernon Evans, both black, are almost out of legal options and could be put to death next year.
The death penalty will likely become a key issue in the General Assembly. Some prosecutors want to strengthen the statute, saying the law is weak compared to those in other states. They also say such a weak statute caused them to lose the right to be the first to prosecute sniper suspects John Allen Muhammad, 42, and 17-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo, known as John Lee Malvo until his case was moved to adult court.
Unlike Virginia, which specifies a date and time for executions, Maryland announces the week an execution will take place. The clock starts ticking at 12:01 a.m. Sunday. The exact time of the execution is chosen by the warden. The witnesses will be alerted three hours before the execution. The inmate will not be told until an hour before. The time is kept secret because of a 1922 law created to avoid the mob scenes that once accompanied hangings.

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