- The Washington Times - Friday, January 31, 2003

ANNAPOLIS Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. yesterday said his personal opposition to the death penalty does not affect the ability of his office to represent Maryland in appeals of capital-punishment sentences.
"We will follow the law as long as the law is capital punishment," Mr. Curran said during a news conference, in which he called for the abolition of the death penalty.
He said state Sen. Sharon M. Grosfeld, Montgomery County Democrat, would introduce a bill today that would abolish capital punishment.
As many as seven death-row inmates could be executed this year.
"Capital punishment comes only at the intolerable risk of killing an innocent person," Mr. Curran, a Democrat, said in front of the State House. "I cannot let this moment pass without making an appeal for change. I do not take this step lightly."
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, this month lifted a moratorium on executions that had been imposed last year by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat. Mr. Ehrlich has said he will review death-sentence appeals for clemency on a case-by-case basis. Twelve inmates are on Maryland's death row.
The governor's office currently is reviewing the case of Steven Oken, who raped and killed three women including his own sister-in-law in 1987. A Baltimore County judge signed a death warrant Monday setting Oken's execution for the week of March 17.
"Let me be absolutely clear: Life without parole means death in prison. Yet there is one pivotal difference between death in prison and the death penalty. That is reversibility," Mr. Curran said yesterday, adding that the risk of killing an innocent person is "unworthy of us [and] fails to pass for justice in a civilized society."
Mr. Curran has long opposed capital punishment, and his office fought the appeals of the three killers Maryland has executed since reinstating the death penalty in 1978.
He noted yesterday that 103 persons on death rows around the country have been exonerated since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment. He said he has questions and reservations about racial and geographic disparities in the state's application of the death penalty.
Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said the governor would not be swayed by the attorney general's arguments.
"The governor intends to fulfill his commitment to carrying out state law," Mr. Fawell said. "The governor believes that public sentiment is behind him and that capital punishment is appropriate for only the most heinous crimes."
Mr. Curran sent a letter Wednesday to Mr. Ehrlich, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele and members of the General Assembly saying the state should end executions. Mr. Curran said he also sent letters to the relatives of victims of death-row killers.
The attorney general cited a University of Maryland study released this month that concluded that race and jurisdiction play key roles in whether a killer is sentenced to death. Murder suspects in Baltimore County and blacks accused of killing white victims are statistically more likely to be charged with a capital offense, the study concluded.
Mr. Ehrlich has asked Mr. Steele, the state's first black lieutenant governor, to further explore why black killers receive more death sentences than white killers.
Lawmakers on both sides of the death-penalty issue agreed Mr. Curran's opinion carries weight, even if it does not directly influence the status of the death penalty.
"He is highly respected," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Montgomery County Democrat and the chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee. "He is in a position of great importance. The guy's got a ton of experience."
Mr. Frosh said he believes a bill to abolish the death penalty would have a chance of getting out of his committee, but he doesn't know what would happen on the floor of the Senate.
Delegate Joseph F. Vallario Jr., Prince George's County Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he has 14 new committee members and doesn't know what would happen on the House side. A bill to abolish capital punishment failed by just one vote last year in Mr. Vallario's committee after the panel already had voted to approve the moratorium.
Delegate Carmen Amedori, Carroll County Republican, is sponsoring a bill that would settle the geographic issue by taking away prosecutorial discretion in death-penalty cases. Under her bill, if a crime is death-penalty eligible, prosecutors would have to seek the death penalty, she said.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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