State has long history of capital punishment

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Maryland has been engaged in capital punishment for more than 200 years - first by hanging, then a gas chamber and finally by lethal injection.

The earliest recorded execution in the state took place Oct. 22, 1773, when four "convict servants" were hanged for slitting the throat of their master, Archibald Hoffman, according to a Maryland Penitentiary historian who wrote an overview on capital punishment for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

In 1809, when the state legislature began debating the appropriate punishment for murderers, it noted that killings "differ so greatly from each other in the degree of their atrociousness, that it is unjust to involve them in the same punishment." The lawmakers decided to create "degrees" of murder, reserving the ultimate sanction only for killings characterized as first-degree murder, according to another death penalty synopsis for the department.

Nearly 100 years later, in 1908, the General Assembly eliminated death as the only sentence for defendants convicted of first-degree murder, rewriting the law to allow judges to impose a sentence of life in prison.

Throughout the 19th century, executions were public spectacles.

John M. Duncan, a Scottish visitor to Baltimore, witnessed the hanging of two mail robbers in a prison courtyard in 1818. "I had in my pocket a small perspective glass, which I offered to two young ladies who happened to stand near me," he wrote of the event in a 1823 publication called Travels through part of the United States and Canada in 1818 and 1819. "They seemed quite pleased with the accommodation, and continued to use it alternately till the whole of the melancholy scene was over."

In January 1913, state executions moved indoors. The first occurred at the Baltimore City Jail, and only invited guests witnessed the hanging, according to the penitentiary historian's overview.

By 1923, Maryland law required that all executions in the state be carried out inside the penitentiary. George Chelton, a 21-year-old man from Somerset County who had been convicted of rape, became the first person hanged there on June 8, 1923.

Over the next 34 years, 75 men "stepped onto the gallows, with 12 double and two triple hangings taking place," according to the historian's overview. The last man to be hanged was William C. Thomas, 32, on June 10, 1955, for rape and murder.

Four men were put to death by asphyxiation in the state penitentiary's gas chamber. The last, Nathaniel Lipscomb, a 33-year-old Baltimore man convicted of murder and rape, was executed June 9, 1961.

For 33 years after Lipscomb's execution, there were no others in Maryland. The U.S. Supreme Court invalidated 40 death penalty laws across the nation in 1972, including Maryland's. The high court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. Maryland enacted new death penalty laws two years later.

Maryland had executed 309 men - and no women - before 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The first man put to death after the resumption of state executions was John Frederick Thanos, 45, who fatally shot three Maryland teen-agers during a week of crime in late summer 1990. On May 17, 1994, he became the first man executed in Maryland by lethal injection - the method used by more than 30 of the 38 states with death penalty laws.

Since Thanos, Maryland had executed three men before Wesley Eugene Baker's lethal injection last night: Flint Gregory Hunt, 38, on July 2, 1997, for gunning down a Baltimore police officer who spotted him running from a stolen Cadillac in an alley; Tyrone X. Gilliam, 32, on Nov. 16, 1998, for the shotgun killing of a Baltimore accountant during a robbery that netted $3; and Steven Howard Oken, 42, on June 17, 2004, for the rape and murder of a White Marsh newlywed at the start of a crime spree in which he also raped and killed his wife's sister and a motel clerk.