-- Circling the razor-wired compound where Wesley E. Baker awaits his fate on death row, dozens of death penalty opponents pleaded with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) on Saturday to block his scheduled execution this week.
The protesters, who chanted, "Hey, Ehrlich, just face it. The death penalty is racist," also singled out Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R), whose opposition to capital punishment puts him at odds with his boss.
Steele, the first African American elected statewide, has said he is troubled by evidence of racial disparities in the use of the death penalty in Maryland. But as he strikes out on his own as a candidate for the U.S. Senate, activists are condemning him for failing to produce a long-promised study on the flaws in the state's system.
"When did you do it? What did you find out?" said Bonnita Spikes, an organizer with Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, who spent Saturday morning praying with Baker before joining the protest of about 80 people outside. "He hasn't followed through."
A newspaper advertisement paid for by a coalition of political and religious leaders hammers Steele on the same issue. "You promised to address the problems," the ad in the Baltimore Afro American says. "But years have passed and you have not done it."
Steele's campaign spokesman said an analysis is forthcoming but declined to say when.
"The lieutenant governor is a man of his word," said Leonardo Alcivar, a spokesman for Steele's campaign to replace retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D). "He will fulfill his commitment to deliver a memo on the subject, and it would be disappointing for anyone to play politics on this issue."
A spokesman for the governor said Steele has met with lawyers on both sides of the issue and others familiar with Maryland's death penalty laws over the past year and a half. But the spokesman, Henry Fawell, declined to name the participants, saying the names would become public when the analysis is released.
As a candidate in 2002, Steele emphasized his religious and moral opposition to the death penalty. After the release of a state-sponsored study that found prosecutors were far more likely to seek the death penalty for black suspects charged with killing white victims, Steele said he would pull together key stakeholders as part of a study to try to repair the system. "Let's get a serious intellectual discussion and study underway and then come back with serious recommendations," he said in March 2003.
Raymond Paternoster, the University of Maryland professor who conducted the state-sponsored study, said he spoke with Steele two years ago but did not understand it to be part of a study group.
"I wasn't asked to join one, and I have no knowledge that one was ever set up. I literally have not heard from him or his office since that one briefing two years ago," Paternoster said Friday.
The protest outside the state prison came at a time of renewed national attention to the death penalty. The nation's 1,000th execution since capital punishment was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976 took place last week.
Maryland voters have consistently shown less support for the death penalty than voters nationwide. Nearly two-thirds of Americans support capital punishment. In Maryland, a January 2004 poll by Potomac Inc. found 53 percent of registered voters in favor and 34 percent opposed.
Independent pollster Keith Haller said support for the death penalty has declined steadily in Maryland. But the criticism of Steele is unlikely to affect his standing with voters, Haller said, because Ehrlich is responsible for deciding whether to stay Baker's execution.
"He's handled this issue very sensitively from a position of conscience, but he's also respectful of the relationship he has with Ehrlich," Haller said.
"You can only go so far without treading on the prerogatives of the governor."