Maryland's De Facto Halt On Executions

By: John Coursey

All executions in the state of Maryland have been halted until Maryland’s highest court hears the appeal of death row inmate Steven Oken in its fall session beginning in September. The appeal calls into question the whole constitutionality of Maryland’s death penalty.

Previously, Wesley Baker, Anthony Grandison, Vernon Evans and Steven Oken were expected to be executed this year, leaving Maryland with the prospect of putting to death more men in one year than the state has put to death in the past three decades.

Instead, abolitionists have won a victory that amounts to a de facto moratorium!

The court’s decision came days after a moratorium bill came very close to passing in the general assembly, but was defeated because of a threatened filibuster by Democratic Sen. Walter Baker. "I’ll do anything I can to kill the bill," Baker said before the end of the general assembly session. "We’re giving a blank check to all of these murderers."

The moratorium bill called for a halt to all executions until the conclusion of a study to determine if racial bias exists in the sentencing of Maryland death row inmates. At the time the bill was introduced, Maryland had the most racist state death penalty system in the country -- with nine African-Americans among 13 death row inmates. Not only that, but a majority of the inmates are blacks accused of killing whites, despite the rarity of this sort of crime in Maryland. Of the four death row inmates who were originally expected to be executed this year, three are black, and all are accused of killing whites.

These facts produced the public outcry in Maryland that led to impressive support for the moratorium bill -- and to the Maryland court system halting executions until further review.

Abolitionists have come a long way in the fight for a halt to executions in Maryland. A few years ago, we mourned the loss of Tyrone X Gilliam, the last man to be executed in Maryland. But the Campaign continued to patiently organize, winning the commutation of Eugene Colvin-El’s death penalty sentence, which was supposed to be carried out last year, and our recent victory in the Maryland courts.

But the fight is far from over. We must continue to be vocal in order to move beyond a de facto moratorium -- and convince even more politicians that it’s time for the real thing.