Debate points out delusions over crime and punishment

AND SO Wesley Eugene Baker, as repugnant a human being as ever murdered a woman in front of her grandchildren, gets a new (if brief) lease on life. And the family of poor Jane Tyson, shot to death 11 years ago outside Westview Mall, is left to feel pushed aside like some insignificant afterthought.

Life is unfair. Gov. Parris Glendening has put a hold on state executions. At moments such as this, when killers get a break, the state itself seems to become an accessory after the crime. Baker, scheduled for execution this week, instead lies on his prison bed and watches himself perform the miraculous act of continuous, uninterrupted breathing.

For now.

Glendening's moratorium is to last a year, but this becomes a misnomer. In the fall, the state gets a death penalty study from the University of Maryland. Not long thereafter, Glendening leaves office. The next governor can make up his, or her, own mind on the moratorium.

In the meantime, there is Wesley Eugene Baker on Maryland's death row, along with a dozen other men. In our hour of great public debate over Glendening's moratorium, those on either side of the issue should ask one simple question: As we wait for guidance, does anyone think these guys are going somewhere?

They sit in stinking, miserable cells, where they belong, and the stench of decay is all around them. They hear stories of a world beyond their prison bars, where people fall in love and flowers blossom, but such things never touch their own miserable lives. To avoid execution for murder is never to be confused with winning.

All of which still leaves many people furious. We want an eye for an eye. But if we're honest, we also allow ourselves a few questions.

How is it, in a state where hundreds of people are murdered each year - 438 homicides across Maryland in 2000 - we have only 13 people scheduled to pay the ultimate price, and nobody has paid it since 1998, during which time more than a thousand people have been killed?

How is it that Baltimore County, which averages only about 35 murders a year, has supplied nine of the 13 death row inmates - while Baltimore City, which averages nearly 300 murders a year, hasn't supplied a death row inmate in 20 years?

And how is it that, in a state where 80 percent of all homicide victims are black, 12 of the 13 men on death row were convicted of killing white people?

We delude ourselves.

We tell ourselves that there is some measurable system, some uniform calculus of mortality, guiding the decision on who will live in prison and who will die there.

It is, in observable fact, a function of other variables. In Baltimore County, State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor has spent the last quarter-century seeking the death penalty whenever possible. In the city, State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy does not.

Each must run for office every four years. That is a simple fact that might influence their posture - or might not. But it is clear that their opinions, and not some objective, measurable system of fairness, guide the decision on seeking the death penalty.

Last week, Glendening called such a system "a lottery of jurisdiction." Consider again: four years since the last execution. More than a thousand murders since then. But only 13 men on death row - and nine of the 13 are black, and 12 of the 13 were convicted of killing whites. And, of the nine inmates from Baltimore County, six are black.

What the moratorium seeks is a sense of fairness in the state of Maryland.

If we get it, it will be a miracle.

How do you measure one victimized family's trauma against another's?

How do you reach racial "fairness" with the preponderance of African-American victims - and perpetrators?

Wesley Eugene Baker is black, and Jane Tyson, the woman he shot outside Westview Mall during his 1991 robbery, was white. Their skin color should not have affected a decision to go for the death penalty on Baker - but, in our concern over disproportionate numbers of blacks being executed for killing whites, neither should that single fact suddenly work in Baker's behalf.

This being an election year, the politicians fly lazy circles around all the bodies. Robert Ehrlich, knowing his constituency, condemns the moratorium. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a backer of the death penalty but one who knows her own constituency, calls the moratorium a small price to pay while we wait for advice on fairness.

We should not hold our collective breath. You can embrace the idea of capital punishment or hate it. But, in a state where hundreds are killed each year and only a few face the ultimate price for it, finding some notion of fairness is just one in our collection of delusions about capital punishment.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun