Activists vow to fight on

Maryland's moratorium bill is defeated

By: John Coursey

By a margin of only one vote, a moratorium bill in Maryland's General Assembly went down to defeat. The state Senate voted 24-23 against a bill that would have halted executions until further study of Maryland's death penalty.

The vote came under the threat of veto by Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who lifted a moratorium in Maryland immediately upon taking office. Some senators, including Democratic Senate President Mike Miller, felt Ehrlich's plans to veto helped justify their vote against the moratorium.

The news was a great disappointment to the many who had worked hard to build support for a moratorium. But the narrow margin also shows just how far the anti-death penalty movement has come.

The fight for a moratorium brought active support from a number of anti-death penalty organizations. Efforts included a rally at Supermax Prison, "Live from Death Row" events featuring a call-in from Maryland death row prisoner Kenny Collins, a phone call campaign to General Assembly members, and lobbying in the state capital.

Also, recently exonerated Illinois death row inmate Madison Hobley, exonerated Maryland death row inmate Kirk Bloodsworth and representatives of four families of Maryland death row journeyed to Annapolis to lobby. Madison's connection to the incredible victory against the death penalty in Illinois earlier in the year brought particular interest from some General Assembly members.

"To see the Senate's vote simply as a defeat misses the point," explained Mike Stark, Washington, D.C., and Maryland regional director of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. "Our side came extremely close because of a movement that's getting stronger and better organized."

The Senate decision also illustrates just how far politicians will go to defend their system of death. Just months before the vote, a two-year study concluded that there was systemic racial and geographical disparities in death sentencing. Maryland currently has 12 death row inmates, eight of which are Black and all 12 of whom are accused of killing whites.

Those who voted against the moratorium took their lead from Ehrlich, who never showed any concern for the study's findings, or the blatant racism of Maryland's death row.

Ehrlich's plan to restart executions faces more obstacles in the future. His first attempt at executing Steven Oken brought a stay of execution when Maryland's highest court ruled 5-2 in favor of a hearing on the constitutionality of Oken's death sentence. A favorable decision by the court could invalidate the death sentences of all of Maryland's death row, pushing back the effort to restart executions for years.

Also, Maryland death row inmate Kevin Wiggins awaits a U.S. Supreme Court decision on whether he received fair legal representation. A ruling for Wiggins could produce another blow against the Maryland death penalty and have an impact nationally.

The Senate vote produced disappointment among abolitionists, but the fight against executions is far from over. We have come a long way and won't let one vote deter us from organizing to end a racist, unjust system.