Anticipated Death Penalty Protests Prompted Spying
Md. Police Chief Says Surveillance Showed Poor Judgment
Saturday, July 26, 2008; Page B01
Concerns that the pending executions of two men could cause violent protests prompted Maryland State Police surveillance of death penalty opponents and peace activists, police Superintendent Terrence B. Sheridan said yesterday after a review of the controversial monitoring program.
Sheridan denounced the 14-month undercover spying operation, which he said was ordered in 2005 by a top police commander during the administration of former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). The infiltration of nonviolent activist groups from Takoma Park to Baltimore, revealed in documents released to the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, was unnecessary and showed poor judgment, Sheridan said.
"Let me assure you, this method will not continue," the police chief, appointed last year by Ehrlich's successor, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), said at a news conference outside state police headquarters. "Law enforcement has no right or authority to infringe on citizens' rights to free speech or public assembly."
Although he called the surveillance lawful, Sheridan said: "The question that comes up is judgment. They shouldn't have gone on that long." Intelligence logs included in the released documents showed no reports of illegal activity.
Sheridan announced a review of the conditions for undercover investigations by his officers and new training procedures "so we make sure our policies reflect the standards of this administration."
He said he could not explain why several prominent antiwar groups were targeted by agents posing as opponents of the Iraq war.
Ehrlich said in an interview on WBAL-AM this week that he was not asked to approve the spying. Sheridan's predecessor, Thomas E. Hutchins, has said Ehrlich was not aware of the program.
ACLU officials, who sued the state police last month to gain access to public documents on surveillance of peace groups in Baltimore, said Sheridan's comments did little to assuage their concerns about the spying and its potential to intimidate future nonviolent protesters.
"We're troubled that Colonel Sheridan did not give a scintilla of evidence to show any basis to be worried about disturbances" from death penalty or war protests, ACLU attorney David Rocah said. "And his explanation does not even begin to explain the surveillance or how local peace groups or local pacifists came to be listed in criminal databases."
A well-known antiwar activist from Baltimore, Max Obuszewski, was singled out by undercover agents and entered into a "Washington-Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area" database. Obuszewski's entry described a "primary crime" of "terrorism-anti-government" and a "secondary crime" of "terrorism-anti-war protesters," according to the documents. The ACLU says it considers the surveillance a violation of federal law because the groups' activities were nonviolent and unrelated to terrorism and because records of the monitoring were kept.
Sheridan said the commander of the special operations division at the time made the decision to spy after receiving a request from a department preparing to monitor protests related to the scheduled execution of Vernon Lee Evans. Evans is an inmate at the Supermax prison in Baltimore who was convicted of being the triggerman in the slayings of two at a Pikesville motel in 1983. His execution was stayed in December 2006.
The Evans case, that of death-row inmate Wesley Baker and the execution in 2004 of Steven Oken had prompted a heated public debate over capital punishment in Maryland. Death penalty opponents protested peacefully at the inauguration of Ehrlich, a death penalty supporter. Baker was executed in 2005.
A "Security Action Plan" was circulated to a number of state police units, according to a document released by Sheridan yesterday, with a background of Evans's case that included his crime, his victims and the lengthy process of appeals by his attorneys.
The document described state police policy "to provide a disciplined, well-trained and well-equipped law enforcement and support response . . . designed to ensure maximum effectiveness . . . to preserve and restore order in response to the execution of Vernon Lee Evans Jr."
The surveillance of the groups ended in May 2006, six months before Evans's execution was postponed, according to a timeline handed out by state police.
Rocah said Sheridan's explanation is incomplete. The ACLU released a series of e-mails written by one of the undercover agents, whose alias was Lucy Shoup and who joined the Internet mailing list of a Baltimore antiwar group as early as January 2005. Shoup wanted details of a lecture by a prominent antiwar activist, the e-mails show.
Members of Congress have called for an investigation of the surveillance, because the state police Homeland Security and Intelligence Division receives federal funding. A state Senate committee has announced hearings for September.
Sheridan said yesterday that he does not think a federal probe is needed. No federal money was spent on the operation, he said.