Unless Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) intervenes, Wesley Baker will be executed by the state of Maryland during the week of Dec. 5.

Baker was convicted of a crime -- the murder of Jane Frances Tyson, a 49-year-old teacher's aide -- about which even the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, one of the most conservative courts in the country, observed, "The evidence that Baker shot Tyson was not overwhelming." Baker's co-defendant, Gregory Lawrence, a man who committed a similar crime prior to Tyson's murder, received a life sentence.

Baker traveled a rough road to death row. He was born as a result of the rape of a 12-year-old. His mother, Dolores Baker, was poor and black and a child herself when she gave birth, and she had no idea about how to be a mother. Her nurturing and discipline of her son subsequently took the form of beatings.

Worse, she later married a drug addict who was physically and emotionally abusive to both her and her son. Sometime before his 5th birthday, Wesley Baker was sexually abused by teenagers.

No one bothered to make the young Baker go to school, and by the time he was 8, he was running away from home regularly and sleeping in movie theaters, hotel bathrooms and abandoned cars. He soon began drinking, smoking pot and shooting heroin.

Baker was arrested numerous times as a juvenile and was committed to various youth facilities, including the now-infamous Charles Hickey School, which was closed after the U.S. Department of Justice found a pattern of abuse there. At age 15, Baker became a father; the mother of his son was a prostitute some 13 years his senior. This squandered and sad childhood produced the Wesley Baker who on June 6, 1991, was present when Tyson was shot.

Baker first learned that he was a child of rape when his attorney was going to reveal the fact at the sentencing hearing that would decide whether his client would live or die. Horrified, ashamed and protective of his mother, Baker insisted that nothing be said that would bring her further suffering, so little about his horrible childhood was revealed during the sentencing phase.

Cypert O. Whitfill, Baker's sentencing judge, drawing from the little bit he did learn of the defendant's upbringing, acknowledged that "in the garden of life, this is the formula for rearing antisocials." But given the awful circumstances of Tyson's murder -- she was shot at point-blank range outside a shopping mall -- Whitfill sentenced Baker to die. Perhaps the judge would have been more lenient if he had learned the full extent of the brutality of Baker's early life.

Nothing can excuse Tyson's murder, and I am not arguing that Baker should be released from prison. He clearly was present during the crime, and he has expressed remorse for his participation.

But Baker is an example of how society fails our youth, particularly our black youth. Maryland's child welfare system was unable or unwilling to protect Baker from abuse and neglect when he was under its care. It was complicit in allowing his young life to be thrown away long before the justice system ruled that Baker should die for his crime.

Baker's imminent execution is an example of Maryland's broken system of capital punishment. A state-commissioned study by the University of Maryland at College Park has documented that death sentences in the state are most likely if the victim is white and the defendant is black, and if the murder happens within a particular jurisdiction -- suburban Baltimore County. Baker is a black, Tyson was white and her murder happened in Baltimore County.

Proponents argue that capital punishment shows our collective moral outrage at heinous murders. To me, Baker's execution instead will underscore Maryland's failure to protect its vulnerable children -- most often black and poor children -- and to stop the cycle of violence that poverty and addiction perpetuate.

The death penalty is a bankrupt policy. It wastes the resources that Maryland desperately needs for education, health care and child care to ensure that other children do not end up like Wesley Baker.

-- Elbridge G. James

is president-elect

of the Maryland Conference, NAACP.