Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that he will rescind Maryland's moratorium on the death penalty immediately upon taking office in January, raising the prospect of as many as seven executions in the first year of his administration.
At an Annapolis news conference called to announce members of his transition team, Ehrlich (R) affirmed that he would make good on a campaign pledge to lift the moratorium. He has said that the governor should review the case of each person on death row individually, rather than issue a blanket moratorium sparing the life of the obviously guilty along with the potentially innocent.
Maryland is one of two states that have halted executions because of doubts about the fairness of the death penalty. The other is Illinois.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) declared the moratorium in May because he said he was troubled by claims in Maryland and across the country that the process disproportionately singles out black killers of white victims for society's ultimate punishment.
Glendening's decision temporarily spared the life of a Baltimore area killer, Wesley E. Baker, 44, who had been scheduled to die for fatally shooting a woman in front of her grandchildren during a purse-snatching in 1991.
Baker and three other men on death row have exhausted their appeals and require only a death warrant to proceed to execution, according to Gary Bair, head of the criminal appeals division in the Maryland attorney general's office. Of the four, three are black men who killed white victims. The fourth is a white man who killed a white victim.
Three more death row inmates are expected to reach the end of their appeals next year. All are black men who killed whites.
While Maryland has sentenced a relatively small number of killers to die compared with such aggressive death-penalty states as Texas and Virginia, an extraordinarily large proportion of the Maryland crimes involve white victims. Indeed, while an overwhelming majority of Maryland murder victims are black, all of the 13 men the state's on death row were sentenced to die for killing whites.
That fact prompted Glendening to commission a study of state murder prosecutions for evidence of racial bias. The results are due in late December, and Glendening declared the moratorium in the hope that the next governor and the General Assembly would review the report and make changes to the capital murder system, if necessary.
Yesterday, Ehrlich confirmed that he is not willing to wait.
Death penalty opponents who had long sought the moratorium said they will try to persuade Ehrlich to wait until the legislative session ends in April.
"We're certainly going to push and make the case that the legislature needs to review the findings of this study," said Jane Henderson, co-director of the Quixote Center, a nonprofit organization in Brentwood that lobbies against the death penalty.
"I'd like to hold out hope that Governor-elect Ehrlich is sincere in his promises of having an open and inclusive administration and that he cares about issues important to African Americans," Henderson said, noting that a statewide poll in July found that 62 percent of blacks surveyed said they support the moratorium.
Death penalty advocates say they are looking forward to resuming executions. Maryland has executed three people since the state reinstated the death penalty in 1978, the most recent four years ago today.
"Should the moratorium be lifted, we would be moving forward . . . and seeking death warrants in the cases where all appeals have been exhausted," said Ann Brobst, an assistant state's attorney in Baltimore County, which has sent more people to death row than any other office in Maryland.
Also yesterday, Ehrlich introduced six people -- four Republicans and two Democrats -- who will lead the transition team as he prepares to become Maryland's first Republican governor in 36 years.
The Republicans are Jennie Hunter-Cevera, president of the University of Maryland's Biotechnology Institute; Jervis Finney, a prominent Baltimore lawyer; former state senator Martin G. Madden; and Susan C. Schwab, dean of the University of Maryland's School of Public Affairs. The Democrats are former lieutenant governor Melvin Steinberg and Gary Murray, an entrepreneur and close adviser to Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D).
The team, led by Lt. Gov.-elect Michael S. Steele and former Glendening Cabinet secretary James T. Brady, will name an additional 50 to 70 transition team members.
Ehrlich also reiterated his campaign pledge not to raise taxes, despite a deficit that has grown to $600 million in the current fiscal year. He said he would speak with Glendening about the budget today at the National Governors Association meeting in Texas.