Stop All Executions!

Maryland Activists Push For A Moratorium

Marching against the death penalty in Maryland
By: John Mayer and John Coursey

The fight for a moratorium in Maryland has taken an important step forward.

At the end of March, the state House of Delegates -- by a vote of 82 to 54 -- passed a bill that calls for a halt on all executions for two years. The solid margin of victory shows how opposition to executions in Maryland has grown.

But as the New Abolitionist went to press, the looming question was whether the state senate would vote on the legislation. Attempting to block the bill from coming to a vote is Democratic Sen. Walter Baker, the chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. "All they want to do is to delay and try to get away with murder," he told reporters. "To give a blank check to every criminal on death row is something I’m not going to do."

But Baker may not get away with burying the moratorium legislation. Senate President Mike Miller wants to see the bill come to a vote even though he does not support it. And if it does come to a vote, the yeas may have it. As Del. Salima Marriott, a Baltimore Democrat, the main sponsor of the bill, put it, "It’s real tight. We’re winning, but it’s tight."

The timing of the legislation couldn’t be more urgent as Maryland death row inmates Wesley Baker, Steven Oken, Anthony Grandison and Vernon Evans have all nearly exhausted their appeals. These four men could be executed in a matter of months -- and this is in a state that has only performed three executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

These four cases follow a disturbing pattern in Maryland -- three of the four are Black, and all were convicted of killing whites. In fact, Maryland has the distinction of being the most racist death row in the country -- nine of the 13 men on death row are African American, and all of them were convicted of killing white victims.

Gov. Parris Glendening, a pro-death penalty Democrat, has funded a $225,000 long-term study to determine whether or not race has been a factor in who ends up on Maryland’s death row. But before the study can be completed and analyzed, these four men could lose their lives.

In an effort to increase public pressure on Maryland’s politicians, activists have a host of activities in the works.

The Campaign to End the Death Penalty has already organized one rally outside of the Supermax -- where Maryland’s death row inmates are held -- and we are currently planning another on April 7. The Campaign is also running a signature ad in support of a moratorium in Maryland newspapers. The ad’s signers include Rev. Jesse Jackson, Ossie Davis, Howard Zinn, Sr. Helen Prejean, Noam Chomsky, Al Sharpton, Mike Farrell, Patricia Ireland, Susan Sarandon and Rage Against the Machine -- as well as numerous community leaders, students, professors and concerned citizens.

Campus chapters have organized educational meetings, campus speakouts and a series of "Live from Death Row" call-in forums, each drawing more than 100 people. Sr. Helen Prejean, author of the award-winning Dead Man Walking, joined family members of death row inmates and activists at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore for a very powerful Campaign event. Norma Brooks-McRoy -- the niece of Eugene Colvin-El, who came within five days of execution before his death sentence was commuted by Glendening last summer in the face of tremendous public pressure -- shared her wisdom and strength in the motto, "Don’t ever give up."

The same pressure that led to victory in Eugene’s case can ultimately lead us to winning a moratorium in Maryland. There is a very real opportunity for Maryland to join Illinois as the next state to call for a statewide halt on executions -- as more and more people question the racist, anti-poor, arbitrary and cruel punishment that the death penalty represents. The facts are being exposed, and the pressure that we can build can lead the way to a moratorium in Maryland.

Moratorium now, abolition next!