We Want A Moratorium

On The Offensive Against Maryland’s Death Penalty

By: Anne Thompson and Michael Stark

What a difference a week can make!

Maryland abolitionists were bracing for a tough fight this winter with the execution of Steven Oken scheduled for March 4. Steven’s case -- which is unusual because both he and the victims he is accused of killing are white -- was being used by prosecutors as a way of restarting executions in a state that has been repeatedly singled out as having one of the most racist death penalties in the country.

Maryland has had a de facto moratorium on executions in place since Tyrone X Gilliam was put to death November 16, 1998. Since Tyrone’s execution, Gov. Parris Glendening has commuted the death sentence of Eugene Colvin-El, the Maryland legislature has come within inches of passing a moratorium bill, and the highest court in Maryland has halted executions while it hears arguments on the constitutionality of the state’s death penalty law.

But a Maryland appeals court rejected Steven’s appeal in a 4 to 3 decision in late January, and prosecutors immediately sought a death warrant.

The entire landscape suddenly changed when the Maryland State Court of Appeals granted a stay of execution in a 6 to 1 decision that will give Steven has a chance to make an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Baltimore County, which accounts for nine out of 13 men on Maryland’s death row, was singled out in a Columbia University study as having the second-highest rate of death penalty convictions among large counties -- and one of the highest rates of overturned death penalty convictions in the country.

To underline these findings, Baltimore County sent Courtney Bryant, an 18-year-old Black man accused of killing a white man, to death row. Courtney is the youngest man in a half-century to be sent to Maryland’s death row.

Taking advantage of the stay of execution in Steven’s case and the public criticism of Baltimore County, the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., chapters of the Campaign have stepped up our efforts.

We organized two press conferences along with other statewide groups opposing the resumption of executions. We toured universities in the Baltimore-Washington area with eight "Live from Death Row" events to build support for a demonstration at the Baltimore supermax prison on February 23 -- and to raise money for a billboard ad to call on Glendening to halt executions.

Despite all of this, pro-death penalty prosecutors and politicians continue to press for the execution of five people, including Steven, who have nearly exhausted their appeals. That would be more people executed in Maryland in one year since 1943. Four out of the five are Black, four out of the five are accused of committing crimes in Baltimore County, and all five were convicted of killing whites.

Abolitionists hope that the recent court delays will stop executions long enough for the completion of a long-awaited state study on racism in the death penalty system, which is universally expected to confirm the arguments that abolitionists have been making. In the words of one person, "It’s like proving gravity."

We hope to use the results of the study to win a moratorium in Maryland -- and to abolish the state’s racist death penalty altogether.