How Activists Built A Fight That Won

The Road To Winning The Moratorium In Maryland

By: Mike Stark

On May 9, just one week before the scheduled execution of Wesley Baker, Governor Parris Glendening called a halt to all executions in the state of Maryland.

Far from being the act of an enlighted governor, the Maryland moratorium was the product of years of public pressure. The key lesson to learn from this victory is that activism from below can change things. Our persistence and stubbornness even in the face of difficulties succeeded in shifting the climate to the point that this success was possible.

Maryland’s first execution since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976 happened in 1994. John Thanos’s case was difficult for abolitionists to organize around because he himself wanted to be executed. The next execution, however, was very different. Greg Hunt was a poor Black man from Baltimore City accused of shooting a white police officer.

When Hunt was executed on July 2, 1997, these were the Dark Ages for Maryland’s anti-death penalty movement. Executions were on the rise nationally, and Maryland was definitely starting to follow that trend. The abolitionist movement was determined, but also quite pessimistic about our prospects. However, activists learned serious lessons that were to serve us well in the future. We learned how to work with attorneys, verify facts, organize a press conference, and organize effective town meetings and demonstrations.

A year later, the state began making plans to execute Tyrone X Gilliam. Tyrone was another poor Black man accused of killing a white person. Also, serious questions remained about whether he was guilty. For many, his case exemplified everything that was wrong with the death penalty--its racism, arbitrariness, and threat to innocent people.

Tyrone was a Muslim prison activist and an eloquent opponent of the death penalty. He helped start the "Live from Death Row" forums, in which he called in via speakerphone to address rallies.

At that point, Glendening was running for reelection. His Web site advertised the execution of Greg Hunt as one of his accomplishments in the previous term. When asked publicly about whether he might support a moratorium, Glendening repeatedly said no.

When Glendening was elected, Black voters provided the margin for his victory. Weeks after the election, Tyrone was executed on November 16, 1998. But in the aftermath, the Legislative Black Caucus was able to pressure Glendening to call for a statistical study of racism in Maryland’s death penalty system.

Two years later, the state was planning to execute Eugene Colvin-El, another poor Black man accused of killing a white. This was shortly after Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in Illinois. Ryan’s decision was important, because it had shifted the entire discussion around the death penalty. Now a debate was raging across Maryland about whether innocent people could die. As it turned out, Eugene’s case was full of questions of innocence.

Taking advantage of the shifting climate, death penalty opponents held several marches, ran a half-page advertisement in the Baltimore Sun and organized a large town meeting. These events, as well as a series of ads placed by members of the Legislative Black Caucus, forced Glendening to commute Colvin-El’s sentence, citing concerns over his possible innocence.

Six months later, hot off this victory, Baltimore City Delegate Salima Siler Marriott introduced a bill in the Maryland General Assembly calling for a halt to all executions pending the outcome of the governor’s study on racism. Abolitionists organized signature ads, several marches, town meetings, letter-writing campaigns, and a lobbying effort in the General Assembly. The moratorium bill passed the Maryland House of Delegates, but failed when a senator launched a last-minute filibuster, blocking the bill from being voted on. This bitter defeat showed both how much progress death penalty opponents were making, but also how vicious our opposition could be.

Next, Wesley Baker, another poor Black man accused of killing a white was scheduled to die in May 2002. Again, death penalty opponents mobilized to oppose the execution, renting a billboard in Baltimore City to call for an end to executions. Faced with a tough election fight and fearing a backlash amongst Black voters, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy-Townsend called on Glendening to halt executions.

One week before the execution, activists held a demonstration at the state capitol building. The next morning, Glendening held a press conference and said the word he once promised to never say: "Moratorium."