Steele Wants Death Penalty Reexamined

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 15, 2006

Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele broke his long silence yesterday on the way the state is handling death penalty cases, saying he believes there is reason for concern about racial, economic and geographic disparities in the way people are sentenced.

"Our system does have flaws," he said in his first lengthy interview on the subject since he took office. "The racial component is a genuine, legitimate concern. That's something that needs to be addressed."

Steele, a Republican and Roman Catholic who is running for U.S. Senate this year, has long voiced strong religious objections to capital punishment but has tempered his views since becoming lieutenant governor in deference to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), a death penalty proponent.

Steele has largely maintained that silence during the three years he and Ehrlich have served, even as the governor signed death warrants for two inmates. With each execution, Steele withstood criticism from people opposed to the death penalty who believed he was doing too little to intervene.

Even as he broached the topic anew yesterday, at a time when he has been striking out on his own campaign and exercising more freedom to voice his views, Steele remained measured and deferential to Ehrlich.

His said his recommendation to Ehrlich, laid out in a confidential memorandum that he did not share, was that the governor form a work group to review the fairness and accuracy of Maryland's death penalty system.

He recommended that the group be composed of a cross section of interest groups on both sides of the capital punishment debate and listed eight "pressing" issues it should study -- including false confessions, the use of jailhouse informants, ineffective assistance of counsel, and racial, economic and geographic disparities.

During a 45-minute interview in his State House office, Steele labored over a question about whether Ehrlich should reinstate a moratorium on executions in Maryland during the proposed review by the work group. He leaned back in his chair and took several stabs at a response before shaking his head and muttering, "This is tough as hell."

"I would put it this way," Steele finally said. "I've shared with the governor my personal views on all aspects of the death penalty and have, I think, given him the reasons why I hold those views, and that would include the question of moratorium."

"I think you get my inference there," he added.

A spokeswoman for Ehrlich said yesterday the governor will review Steele's recommendations before making any comment.

Democrats immediately questioned the timing of Steele's statements and faulted him for offering what they considered a halfhearted approach.

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