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Death penalty foes won't win support by demonizing mayor and prosecutor


MIKE STARK SAT AT the table and talked with passion. So much passion, in fact, that at times he pounded the table with his knuckles for emphasis. He was passionate about his hatred of injustice, his hatred of racism.

And his total revulsion for the death penalty.

Stark is a handsome young man of 27, a computer programmer who lives in Maryland's Washington suburbs. The night Tyrone Gilliam was executed for the murder of Christine Doerfler, Stark was outside with scores of others making their displeasure known.

When television cameras zoomed in on Stark to get his comments, he was uninhibited in his remarks. Stark compared Gilliam's execution to a lynching. He charged that Baltimore County prosecutors were targeting young black men for execution.

Almost a week earlier, he had said the same thing to a group of death penalty opponents at the Johns Hopkins University. Only at Hopkins, Stark was more personal. He singled out Sue Schenning, deputy state's attorney for Baltimore County, who prosecuted Gilliam. He then charged Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke with using the death penalty for political purposes when he was state's attorney, specifically in the case of Flint Gregory Hunt, murderer of Baltimore police Officer Vincent Adolfo. Hunt was executed in the summer of 1997.

Stark wasn't backing down on his statements. Asked whether such comments might lose voters who might otherwise cast their ballots to end the death penalty, Stark had an optimistic answer.

"I don't want to antagonize people who are friendly to the campaign," he said. "My theory is, when we have the numbers on the ground and build the movement, politicians will flock to us like flies."

Well, it's a quaint theory. But it's not likely Stark's comments will antagonize those already friendly to the folks in the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, which Stark has worked with the last three years. The problem is with the fence-sitters, with the folks who haven't made up their minds. With them, making Schenning and Schmoke the villains will not gain CEDP any friends. Schenning didn't put Gilliam on death row. Gilliam did. Schmoke didn't put Hunt on death row. Hunt did.

Such distinctions matter not to Stark. He claims that in his anti-death penalty activism, he has never failed to convert a death penalty proponent by using five simple points.

"It's racist," Stark said of the death penalty. "It's used mainly against the poor. We've had innocent people executed. It provides no deterrence against murder. And it's cruel and unusual punishment."

Stark founded the Georgetown University chapter of CEDP with five others and mobilized around the Hunt case. But his anti-death penalty activism started in 1995.

"I got personally involved around the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal," Stark recalled, referring to the Philadelphia journalist who is on death row in Pennsylvania for the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia police officer.

"A lot of working people got involved," Stark said of the Abu-Jamal case. "It struck a chord. There were protests in Philadelphia, New York, all over the country."

CEDP was born in Boston, when Cornel West, Howard Zinn and a bunch of other saps who believed Abu-Jamal was innocent rallied in his cause. But soon, Stark said, Abu-Jamal supporters realized the issue was bigger than the one man. The issue was the death penalty itself.

Stark is a socialist, a political position he took hobnobbing with German college students while attending a Department of Defense high school in Frankfurt, Germany, where his father was a foreign service officer.

"Being brought up abroad allows you to see things with a critical eye," Stark observed. "Is the U.S. justice system the best in the world?" Obviously not, according to Stark. Not with the death penalty and all its inequities.

Would Stark support the death penalty if it were equitably applied? He paused for a few seconds before answering.

"That's such an abstract question," he said. "In the United States, the death penalty has never been equitably applied. There's a link between the lynchings in the South and the death penalty."

It may be easier for moderate Marylanders to discern that link if the anti-death penalty folks realize that demonizing a Sue Schenning or a Kurt Schmoke harms, not helps, their cause.

Pub Date: 12/06/98

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