BALTIMORE – Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening’s May 9 decision to halt executions pending completion of a study of racial bias in capital punishment drew strong praise from death penalty opponents this week. In announcing his decision, Glendening cited reports showing that 101 death row inmates across the nation have been exonerated since 1978, raising concerns that innocent people have been wrongfully convicted and executed.

‘Very serious questions have been raised about the system, about its impartiality,’ the Governor said, ‘particularly relative to race and especially the race of the victim.’

All but one of the state’s 13 death row inmates were sentenced for murdering whites. Glendening said he reached his decision after reviewing statistics showing that nine of Maryland’s death row inmates were tried and convicted in Baltimore County, suggesting a jurisdictional bias. Nine of the 13 inmates, including Wesley Eugene Baker, who had been scheduled for execution this week, are African Americans.

Rep. Salima Siler Marriott, chair of the Baltimore delegation to the Maryland House of Delegates, hailed Glendening’s moratorium. ‘This is good for racial justice,’ she told the World.

Last year, Marriott won passage by a surprising 82 to 54 vote, of her death penalty moratorium bill and it appeared headed for passage in the Senate until a handful of right wingers killed it with a filibuster.

‘I oppose the death penalty on principle,’ Marriott said, ‘but my perspective was to stop the executions right now and the moratorium was our best chance to achieve that.’

The study on racial bias, Marriott said, will be a chance to educate the people, to win public support for outlawing capital punishment.

‘We need restorative justice that makes the families of the victims whole. Instead, we have prosecutors fueling the fires of vengeance.’

In this climate of retribution, ‘innocent people are convicted and sometimes executed,’ she said. ‘Just look at the case of Michael Austin, who spent 27 years in the Maryland penitentiary before new evidence proved he did not commit the murder he was accused of. If he had been sentenced to death, an innocent man would have died,’ Marriott said, adding that capital punishment is poisoned by both ‘race and class bias.’

She credited a broad grassroots coalition for the victory. ‘We had elected officials led by the Black Legislative Caucus working together with the Catholic Conference and the movement to end the death penalty. It was that coalition that convinced the Governor.’

Rep, Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-Ill.) has introduced a bill in the U.S. Congress calling for a national death penalty moratorium. ‘With Maryland joining Illinois in a moratorium, this is an opportunity to push Rep. Jackson’s national moratorium,’ Marroitt said.

The issue now looms over Maryland’s gubernatorial election this fall. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a Democratic candidate to replace Glendening, who is unable to run because of term limits, announced her support for the moratorium.

Rep. Robert Ehrlich (R-Md.), Republican candidate for Governor, denounced the decision and made clear he will make an issue of it in the election.

Jane Henderson, a spokesperson for Maryland-based Equal Justice USA, told the World, ‘This is the first time a governor has intervened specifically out of concern for racial bias on the death penalty. No other state has a higher percentage of African Americans among its death row inmates.’

Equal Justice USA, she said, has spearheaded a nationwide campaign called ‘Moratorium NOW’ aimed at initiating death penalty moratoriums state by state. Through their efforts more than 2,000 organizations and 72 local governments have adopted resolutions endorsing a moratorium on the death penalty.

‘Our entire criminal justice system is skewed along racial lines,’ Henderson said. ‘I think there is a shift in public opinion. Support for capital punishment has always been a mile wide and an inch deep. Give people an alternative to the death penalty and they support it. There is no way the death penalty can be applied fairly.’

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