The Fight to Stop Executions in Maryland

Credit: Ben Dalbey
March in December against Wesley Baker's execution
By: David May

On December 5, the state of Maryland executed Wesley Eugene Baker, despite a recent comprehensive study proving that Maryland’s death penalty is racist and arbitrary in many ways. Wesley was the first black man executed in Maryland since the study came out and since the end of a short-lived moratorium that was enacted by former Gov. Parris Glendening after much pressure from our movement.

The current governor, Robert Ehrlich, has shown that he cares little about the study, the people suffering on death row, or the increasing anger among ordinary people about the unfairness of the state’s death machine.

The weeks leading up to Wesley’s execution saw a large increase in activism around the state. After hosting a stop of the Campaign’s Voices From Death Row tour in early November, a local abolitionist group called the Baltimore Coalition tripled in size and organized events that drew widespread media attention. The Coalition’s demonstration outside the governor’s mansion in Annapolis was featured on the front page of the Sunday Baltimore Sun, and a town-hall meeting featuring local activists, politicians, and prisoners’ family members led the nightly news on four different television stations. The mostly positive media coverage reflected how our movement was changing public opinion.

The new Washington, D.C., chapter of CEDP, the Goucher College chapter of Amnesty International, and other groups organized similarly successful events, often tying together the fights for Wesley and for Stan Tookie Williams, who was executed in California on December 13. These groups and others joined together twice for large demonstrations at the Supermax prison in the final days before Wesley’s death, each time drawing more than 70 people, including Wesley’s family.

Largely due to our efforts, thousands of people learned about Wesley and know that his state-sanctioned murder was unjust. Likewise, the worldwide struggle to save Tookie has brought even greater anger to the surface. Glendening’s recent call for reinstating the moratorium raised awareness about the bias that plagues Maryland’s death row, but so far has been ignored not only by Gov. Ehrlich but also by the main Democratic contenders for governor in the election later this year.

Despite losing Wesley, Maryland abolitionists are now even more committed to organizing, and we already face a new challenge. Vernon Lee Evans Jr., another black man who had been living in poverty, has just been scheduled to die the week of February 6. Gov. Ehrlich has built up momentum by killing Wesley and now aims to make executions in Maryland seem like legitimate “business as usual.”

As described by CEDP member Mike Stark. “Vernon was convicted in a trial based on snitch-testimony, contradictory eye-witnesses, and no physical evidence. Several witnesses were never allowed to testify at the trial, including the only eye-witness. This eyewitness later testified under oath that the shooter was a lot taller than Vernon (who is only 5’2” and nicknamed “Shorty”) and that the shooter’s clothes did not match what Vernon was wearing at the time of the murders. Other witnesses have corroborated this account. Vernon has consistently maintained that he did not perform the shootings.”

Our fight will be a hard one, for sure, but we have hope. Among the active leadership in our struggle are members of Vernon’s very close family, long-time friends of Vernon, and Vernon himself, who has reached many hundreds upon hundreds of people through “Live From Death Row” call-in events.

Vernon has written, “When I was in society I did used to whine. But I would whine about things that didn’t involve life. I would say: “They tax me too much” “It sure is hot out today” “It’s too cold.” But now that I’ve been living with a death sentence for twenty-two years, I have had an education on how meaningful life is. I have come to understand that others may put little into life, no matter what end of the stick they are on. When I whine now, I whine because I have spent my life learning what others know to be true. I whine because there is a system in place that is not fair when it comes to taking a life. I know what others know to be true but turn away from.”

With more demonstrations, media and community outreach, and pressure on politicians anywhere they go, we hope to save Vernon’s life and build our movement for justice in Maryland even stronger.