Parris N. Glendening became the second governor in the nation to impose a moratorium on the death penalty, ordering a halt yesterday to next week's execution of Wesley Eugene Baker while a state-ordered University of Maryland study of capital punishment is completed and reviewed.
In justifying his call for a one-year moratorium, Glendening cited reports showing that 101 death row inmates across the country have been exonerated since 1978, as well as concerns about racial and geographic disparities in Maryland, particularly Baltimore County.
"Very serious questions have been raised about the system, about its impartiality," he 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 a review of statistics showing that nine of Maryland's death row inmates were prosecuted by Baltimore County and that nine of them are black.
"When nine out of 13 people on death row come from one jurisdiction and that jurisdiction does not have a particularly high homicide rate, it does raise some questions," he said.
His decision, which triggered both praise and criticism, means that Maryland's next governor and legislature must decide whether the state's laws on capital punishment should be revised. The issue is sure to be a central topic in this year's elections.
Glendening's announcement also delays four other executions - those of Heath William Burch, Anthony Grandison, Vernon Evans and Steven Howard Oken - that could have been carried out in the next few months. The University of Maryland study, to be completed in September at a cost of $225,000, will be reviewed by state officials and next year's General Assembly.
Among the candidates for governor, Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said yesterday that she supports the moratorium. Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. opposes it.
Glendening said that he still supports the death penalty.
Baker and the others whose executions were postponed committed "vicious crimes" and probably deserve to die, Glendening said. But the governor said it does not make sense to execute anyone while the fairness of the process is under review as part of the study he commissioned two years ago.
"There is a logical inconsistency to say we're reviewing the fairness and justice of the death penalty process and in the meantime we're going to execute," Glendening said.
In Illinois, Republican Gov. George Ryan extended last month a temporary halt to executions after a study recommended 85 changes to the state's capital crime statute. The Illinois moratorium was imposed in 2000.
Glendening's decision thrilled death penalty opponents but infuriated the family of Baker's victim.
Baker, 44, who is black, was convicted of first-degree murder in the shooting of Jane Tyson, who is white, in front of two of her grandchildren outside Westview Mall in Baltimore County during a 1991 robbery.
"It is like a slap in our face that [the governor] did this," said Karen Sulewski, one of Tyson's three daughters. "It is like saying [that] after all we have [been] through - the court hearings, appeals - we now have to start all over."
Sulewski, the mother of the two young children who were with Tyson when she was killed, said she has lost faith in the criminal justice system.
Glendening said he had reviewed a petition submitted by Baker's lawyers on Tuesday requesting a stay of execution. But he said that he had decided on a moratorium as early as last week.
Gary W. Christopher said he called his client's mother yesterday morning to tell her of the governor's decision and that she was on the phone with Baker.
"He's very humbled by what was done in this case, and he's very gratified by it," Christopher said.
Others questioned the timing of Glendening's decision.
Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly, a Republican who supports capital punishment, said: "If this moratorium was the right move to make, why didn't he do it when he announced funding for the study? The answer is, he didn't want to take the political heat back then."
But death penalty opponents said Glendening's decision showed courage.
Richard J. Dowling, a spokesman for the Maryland Catholic Conference, said records show that 64 of 82 inmates executed in Maryland in the past 79 years have been black.
Of the four others whose executions will be delayed by the moratorium, three are black - Burch, Grandison and Evans, each of whom killed two whites. The fourth, Oken, is white and his three victims were white.
A year ago, the House of Delegates passed a death penalty moratorium bill with the backing of influential black lawmakers. The measure was killed in the state Senate.
Del. Salima S. Marriott, chairwoman of Baltimore's House delegation, said yesterday that she was elated with Glendening's decision.
"This is good for racial justice. This is good for the Democratic Party, recognizing African-Americans, not taking us for granted," she said. "It's a departure from what I saw on how we were moving the Democratic Party to the center."
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. applauded the governor for allowing the General Assembly to consider the topic next year.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, said that no jurisdiction in the United States has as high a percentage of inmates on death row as Baltimore County.
S. Ann Brobst, who heads the Circuit Court division of the Baltimore County state's attorney's office, said the office will continue to seek the death penalty in every case that meets state legal requirements for such a sentence.
Glendening's decision will undoubtedly play a large role in the Maryland gubernatorial race this fall.
Townsend said yesterday that she remains a death penalty supporter but a moratorium is needed to ensure public confidence in the legal system.
"A moratorium is about taking the time to ensure we've done everything we can to make sure the penalty is fair and just," she said.
Ehrlich said he has seen no evidence in the Baker case to warrant a delay and that halting the execution a week before it was to be carried out is wrenching for the victim's family. He accused Townsend of changing her views on the issue from two years ago.
Evolving due process case law and technological advances have improved the capital punishment system, Ehrlich said.
"Is it perfect? No. But I don't know of anything that is."
Sun staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this article.