The execution team is in training again. On the second-floor hospital unit of the Maryland penitentiary, its members are going through the motions start to finish, trying to anticipate the problems that could arise in the bleak, barren chamber where the state puts people to death.
The drills, complete with artificial arms and feet, stopped last year after then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening stayed one execution and declared a moratorium on capital punishment. Glendening (D) worried in part that different prosecution practices meant the death penalty was a "lottery of jurisdiction" based on where murders were committed, not a defensible end to the most heinous crimes.
But with the election and inauguration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the moratorium is essentially over. Ehrlich (R) pledged during his campaign to lift it, and he hinted of no change of mind during his first days last week. The state attorney general's office considers the ban de facto, not set in law, which means that no executive action is required to reverse course. All the system needs to restart is a prosecutor's decision to proceed and a judge's signature on a warrant. Both could come any day, presaging the first execution since 1998.
Prosecutors understand this. Defense lawyers understand this. So, too, do the individuals with lives on the line.
The people charged with carrying out the court order intend to be ready. They resumed practicing in December as if a condemned inmate already were before them, secured by heavy leather straps on a thin slab of steel. Their rehearsals include inserting the intravenous line, which would deliver, in sequence, drugs to render him unconscious, relax his muscles, stop his heart. They figure what to do if the line becomes blocked, who would step into what role should a team member faint.
"We are prepared," corrections department spokesman Leonard A. Sipes Jr. said.
Twelve men have a deeply vested interest in the drills. They live across the street from the penitentiary, in the downtown Baltimore prison known as Supermax, where they are separated as a special fraternity from the rest of the hard-core-criminal population. They spend their days the way prisoners in their circumstance typically do, waiting and wondering. The most senior, in terms of tenure and age, have been here nearly two decades and are now in their fifties. A few came within weeks, even days of dying in the past and could quickly do so again. Indeed, it is possible that the state could see multiple executions this year, for the first time since 1959.
"The people of Maryland haven't really had to think much about capital punishment in the real sense in a long time," said lawyer H. Mark Stichel, who represents the sole Prince George's County murderer in the group. "We've only had three executions in the modern era, and one of those was a volunteer."
Stichel's client, Heath Burch of Capitol Heights, is atypical only by jurisdiction. He is a black man convicted in 1996 of killing a white person -- or, rather, two people, a retired neighbor and his wife, whom Burch attacked during a botched late-night robbery. Elderly couples were victims in three of the cases. All were brutally stabbed at home, including one couple in their eighties who were murdered shortly after returning from Thanksgiving dinner.
Yet according to a recent study by a University of Maryland criminologist, a sweeping analysis of potential capital cases over 20 years, the far more telling statistics are these: Nine of the dozen death row inmates were charged and convicted in Baltimore County. Eight of the 12 are black. And every victim, no matter where the crime, was white. The last man the state executed fit the profile detail for detail, as did Courtney Bryant, the last person to join the fraternity. Bryant was just 19 when he was sentenced last year.
Death penalty opponents are trumpeting the study's conclusions that the Maryland system is marred by significant geographical and racial disparities, which they charge amount to grossly unequal justice. Some lawmakers want the new governor to proceed cautiously, while others are preparing bills that would tie his hands.
The one certainty is that the report will be cited in court, another opportunity for appeal by those nearing zero on all other grounds. Whether that might further delay -- or halt -- executions is the uncertainty. John Booth-El's attorney, Michael Millemann, already has filed a pleading based on the research, which he said shows "the racial bias that has infected the whole process. . . . Bottom line, it's the depreciation of black life."
Booth-El's sentence has been overturned and reinstated three times. His is the single Baltimore case on the list, stemming from the 1983 slayings of Irvin and Rose Bronstein. Their son found them, bound, gagged and stabbed a dozen times each, in their living room. In their family's view, that's the other bottom line.
"It's been an unbelievable nightmare," said their daughter, Phyllis Bricker, who with other relatives has attended "every trial, every appeal" at the state and federal levels, up to the Supreme Court. "I always believed in the criminal justice system, and I always believed this would be taken care of. I never would have believed it would have lasted 20 years."
Still, "the first man up," as his own counsel put it, likely would be Steven Oken. His execution had been scheduled for early March last year, until the state Court of Appeals granted him a stay. He then filed a petition with the Supreme Court, which denied his request to be heard four days after Glendening announced the moratorium.
"We've hired statisticians. We're going through the report now," said attorney Fred Warren Bennett. He would have to allege geographical bias because Oken is white, sentenced for the 1987 rape and execution-style slaying of 20-year-old newlywed Dawn Marie Garvin. Hers was the first in a trio of murders over two weeks. One of the other victims was Oken's sister-in-law. The third was a young hotel clerk in Maine.
After all this time, Fred Romano, Garvin's brother, believes he won't be disappointed: "I have no doubt that the state of Maryland in the near future will execute Steven Oken."
But after all this time, Baltimore County Assistant State's Attorney Ann Brobst knows: "Every time I have thought one of these cases would come to its conclusion, I was wrong. So I don't guess anymore."
Bennett has no intention of surrendering. He reassures his client: "I tell him what we plan on doing. I try to buck him up, cheer him up. I tell him to not give up the fight."
Relatively speaking, Maryland is not a killing state. It has executed 83 men in the past eight decades. Virginia executed the same number in a quarter of that time. Maryland differs from its neighbor in other ways, too. It does not announce exactly when an execution will take place. When a warrant is signed, a date is set for no sooner than four weeks and no later than eight, and officials only announce the five-day window in which the event might transpire. According to corrections spokesman Sipes, the law forbidding disclosure originated in the early 20th century, when spectators at one of the last public hangings in Baltimore County broke through police lines afterward and stole pieces of the dead man's clothing.
In Prince George's, newly elected State's Attorney Glenn Ivey and his assistants have begun to review their particular file, with all its attendant briefs and opinions. Death penalty opponents also have begun to work on him; one from the Maryland Catholic Conference called the other day hoping he would support legislative action.
The University of Maryland study makes him pause, Ivey admitted, because it seems to speak so directly to Heath Burch. He also hesitates because appellate decisions pending in a couple of other cases could have a bearing on Burch's.
"It's been a roller coaster ride for people like me, who don't have their views set in stone and are trying to figure out what the right thing to do is," he said. "But if I'm comfortable with the state of the law, I'll sign the warrant.
"There's probably no more serious decision that I'll make in my life."