THREE MEN were put to death by hanging at the Maryland Penitentiary on April 30, 1948. It was the most recent occasion when more than two people were legally executed in Maryland in the same year. Four men had been hanged in 1947.
The year 2002 will bring back the death penalty with a shock. Four men on death row - Wesley Baker, Vernon Evans, Anthony Grandison and Steven Oken - have exhausted their appeals, except for one final run at the U.S. Supreme Court, which is certain to be summarily dismissed. Oken's death warrant has already been signed.
In his final year as governor, Parris N. Glendening will become the last hope for life for each of these men. He has full powers of commutation.
Leading the chorus for clemency will no doubt be Cardinal William Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore, who may well bring the pope into play. He did that in June 2000, when Eugene Colvin-el was spared the death penalty by Mr. Glendening, a Catholic.
There is something to be said for commutation, from a punitive point of view. Living out one's life in maximum security can be regarded as a crueler and more prolonged sort of punishment for murder than simply being sedated, never to wake up, on a medical gurney.
But where there's life, there's hope. Spared the death penalty, Baker and company may try to escape or to win full pardons one day. They would also remain very dangerous to prison staff and other inmates.
But there is a deeper reason why clemency is not enough for these men.
Maryland's capital punishment statute is fiendishly complex. Any prosecutor who seeks the death penalty must conduct a perfect trial. The question of guilt is by law separated from the question of punishment. A 12-member jury must be unanimous on both questions.
Then the mandatory appellate process begins. It is so multifarious, so cumbersome and so riddled with compunction and opportunities to cast doubt on the propriety of the death penalty that it takes years to resolve. Each defendant gets at least two full rounds of appeal through both state and federal courts. Baker and company will have had at least three.
That's why, when the appellate process has fully vetted the case and the death sentence is still standing, the imposition of that sentence is anything but legal murder, as death penalty abolitionists would have it.
We have rigged our system of capital punishment so carefully in favor of mercy that we can be sure (as sure as any other fact-finding process in this fallible world) that any execution carried out in Maryland is the result of a tremendous perfectionist quest for justice, both for the victim and for the killer.
If Governor Glendening should nonetheless spare these condemned men, he will subvert the very rule of law he was elected to uphold. The path to execution is so awesome, so fair and so much the momentous consensus of so many players that one man has no right to substitute his personal opinion for that just result that our laws have labored so hard to effect. The power of commutation goes back to the time when our governor was appointed by the king of England, not chosen by popular vote.
Clemency for Baker and company will be a feel-good temptation for Mr. Glendening. Certainly he will not relish presiding over four executions in his last year as governor. But if he succumbs to that temptation, it will not be the heroic act for which the cardinal and many others will applaud him. It will be an act of tyranny.
Hal Riedl is a case management specialist with the Maryland Reception, Diagnostic and Classification Center of the Division of Correction. His opinions are his own.