Capital Punishment History

A Historical Perspective

The earliest recorded Maryland execution took place on October 22, 1773, when four convict servants were hanged at Frederick for slitting the throat of their master, Archibald Hoffman (VIRGINIA GAZETTE. 26 July 1773 and BOSTON NEWSLETTER. 26 November 1773).

The first description of a Maryland execution came from John Duncan, a visitor to Baltimore in 1818, who witnessed the hanging of two mail robbers from outside the prison court yard along with numerous other spectators: "I had in my pocket a small perspective glass which I offered to two young ladies who happened to stand near me; they seemed quite pleased with the accommodation and continued to use it alternately till the whole melancholy scene was over. The bodies on being cut down were immediately buried in the corner of the prison yard." (Travels through the U.S. and Canada, 1823, I, 232). Hangings remained public spectacles throughout the nineteenth century, carried out in the counties where those condemned were convicted.

But during this time sentiment against public executions was growing. The first indoor hanging took place at the Baltimore City Jail in January of 1913, with only official witnesses admitted (Evening SUN, 1 January 1913). Beginning in 1923, in accordance with state law, all executions in Maryland were carried out privately inside the Penitentiary. The first person hanged there was a 21-year-old man from Somerset County named George Chelton, on June 8, 1923, for rape. Over the next 34 years, 75 men stepped onto the gallows, with 12 double and two triple hangings taking place.

As a representative of the press, H. L. Mencken witnessed nine hangings, including that of convicted murderer Richard Resse Whittemore on August 13, 1926. His clinical and graphic account appeared in the Evening SUN on August 16th and also in A Mencken Chrestomathy (1949).

Not every hanging was noticed by the newspapers, but at least one proved different enough to be written up by the NEWS on January 30, 1930. Shortly after midnight, Jack Johnson, a 56-year-old man convicted of double murder, dropped through the trap, but the rope broke. His limp form was quickly placed on a stretcher and carried up on the scaffold where his neck was put into a fresh noose. With Johnson still supported by the stretcher, the trap was sprung again, and he was pronounced dead shortly after. The last to be hanged was a 32-year-old man named William C. Thomas on June 10, 1955, for rape and murder.

Thereafter, four executions have taken place by asphyxiation in the Penitentiary's gas chamber, believed to be a more humane way of putting a person to death than hanging. The last execution by lethal gas occurred on June 9, 1961, the condemned man being Nathaniel Lipscomb, a 33-year-old man from Baltimore City, convicted of rape and murder.

Changes to Maryland's Death Penalty statute, enacted on March 25, 1994 altered the manner in which the punishment of death is carried out, providing for lethal injection, now regarded as the most humane method of execution. First used in Texas on December 7, 1982, it now is used by over 30 of the 38 states where capital punishment is legal. Maryland's first execution by lethal injection occurred on May 17, 1994, the condemned man being John F. Thanos, convicted of the slaying of two individuals in 1990.

Wallace Shugg
Maryland Penitentiary Historian


Maryland legislature reinstates the death penalty, two years after the Supreme Court of the United States rules in Gregg v. Georgia that states may resume executions if their statutes sufficiently meet new guidelines intended to prevent arbitrariness in the system.


The Maryland death penalty statute is amended to exclude juvenile offenders; it is not until 2005 that the US Supreme Court abolishes the death penalty for juveniles nationwide with a 5-4 ruling in Roper v. Simmons.

Life Without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP) statute is adopted as a new alternative sentence juries may consider in capital cases.


The US Supreme Court empties Maryland's death row, finding in Mills v. Maryland that the State had improper jury instructions regarding mitigating factors in capital cases.


The Maryland death penalty statute is amended to exclude mentally retarded offenders; it is not until 2002, when the US Supreme Court rules 6-3 in Atkins v. Virginia, that the death penalty is abolished for the mentally retarded nationwide.

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The method of execution is changed from lethal gas to lethal injection.


A taskforce empanelled by Governor Parris Glendening identifies a pattern of racial bias in death sentencing and recommends a comprehensive study on the issue. This taskforce could do only minimal investigation, as it had neither staff nor subpoena power.


Delegate Salima Siler Marriot introduces the nation's first moratorium bill in the Maryland General Assembly in February, the same month that the American Bar Association makes its historic call for a moratorium on executions. The bill includes a comprehensive study of racial bias. It stalls in committee.

The Maryland Commission on the Fair Imposition of the Death Penalty (a Racial Justice Act) passes out of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. After Senator Buckey Trotter speaks eloquently on the Senate floor, it passes the Senate 42-2. The bill then dies in the House committee.

1998 and 1998 Legislative Sessions

A study and moratorium are introduced as separate bills in an effort to move at least the study. Neither bill makes it out of the House or Senate committees.

December 1999

As a result of pressure from the State's Legislative Black Caucus and the religious community - African-American ministers in particular - Governor Glendening agrees to fund a $225,000 study of racial bias in death sentencing at the University of Maryland - College Park.

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2000 Legislative Session

Delegate Marriott introduces a bill to impose a moratorium pending the outcome of the study in the House of Delegates, but the bill stalls in committee.

Spring 2000

The councils of Prince George's and Montgomery Counties and Baltimore City - the state's most populous jurisdictions - pass resolutions urging the Governor and legislature to impose a moratorium on executions, pending the results of the Governor's study.

An open letter from Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke and House Appropriations Chair Pete Rawlins urging Governor Glendening to impose a moratorium runs as an ad in the Baltimore Sun.

The Maryland Legislative Black Caucus runs an ad in the Baltimore Sun and Journal Newspapers urging Glendening to impose a moratorium as the execution of Eugene Colivn-El looms in June.

June 2000

Governor Glendening commutes the death sentence of Eugene Colvin-El - his first commutation since taking office and after allowing two executions, both of black men. Colvin-El is also black.

Immediately after the commutation, County Executives of Prince George's and Montgomery Counties join moratorium bandwagon by sending a public letter to Glendening urging him to halt executions.

September 2000

The study begins and, for the first time, data is compiled on the broad universe of murder cases where, based on the law and facts of the case, the death penalty could have been sought but was not.

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2001 Legislative Session

Delegate Mariott recruits senior African-American Senator Clarence Blount to sponsor a Senate moratorium bill, a companion to her House bill.

Maryland Legislative Black Caucus makes the moratorium one of its 2001 legislative priorities.

Grassroots pressure for a moratorium builds, including constituent calls, emails, letters, and visits to legislators.

Press coverage in The Washington Post and elsewhere highlights Senate Judicial Proceedings Chair Walter Baker's practice of refusing to call committee votes on bills he opposes, with the moratorium bill as a prime example.

House Judiciary Committee Chair Joseph Vallario agrees to call the bill to a vote as momentum builds and the votes are secured in the Senate committee. The House committee easily passes the bill, as does the full House of Delegates by an 82-54 vote on March 24th.

Over 400 Marylanders sign an ad in the Baltimore Sun, sponsored by Equal Justice USA / Quixote Center.

Late in the session, Chairman Baker concedes to a vote in the Senate committee and the moratorium passes 6-5.

A filibuster led by Chairman Baker and Senate Republicans blocks a Senate vote, even though the floor whip indicates that the votes are there to pass the bill.

April - June 2001

The Maryland Court of Appeals intervenes in the case of Steven Oken to consider constitutional questions regarding the standards of evidence that Maryland jurors use in deciding death sentences. At issue is whether Maryland juries, as in most states, should use "beyond a reasonable doubt" as the standard rather than a "preponderance of evidence" standard (as Maryland law dictates) when weighing aggravating and mitigating circumstances to decide whether to impose a death sentence. The Court's action forestalls several executions that were expected in 2001.

December 2001

The Maryland Court of Appeals denies Oken's appeal, upholding the "preponderance of evidence" standard at sentencing. Baltimore County then immediately seeks a death warrant.

A statewide campaign targeting the Governor escalates. The State Conference of the NAACP takes on a new and prominent role.

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January 2002

Annual Maryland Poll reports that about 65% of blacks in the state support a moratorium.

A death warrant is issued for Steven Oken, a white prisoner convicted in Baltimore County. The Court of Appeals stays Oken's February execution date pending a federal appeal.

Statewide mobilization brings thousands of calls, letters, and emails to the Governor.

March - May 2002

A death warrant is signed for Wesley Baker, a black man with a white victim convicted in Baltimore County. The Court of Appeals denies a stay of Baker's May execution date.

A delegation including the president of the Maryland NAACP and the Chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, meets with the Lt. Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. She expresses her support for a moratorium and agrees to talk to the Governor.

The Lt. Governor, a death penalty supporter, announces her support for a moratorium in The Washington Post (May 3), the day before she officially announces her candidacy for governor.

Glendening announces the moratorium as he stays Baker's execution on May 9th. He wants the moratorium to continue until the governor, the legislature, and the public can thoroughly review the findings of his study, but acknowledges that its fate is ultimately up to the next governor.

November 2002

Robert Ehrlich Jr. is elected governor and publicly states that he will fulfill his campaign promise to lift the moratorium. Senator Baker loses his re-election bid and Senator Brian Frosh becomes the committee chair.

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January 2003

The University of Maryland study is released and receives wide media coverage. The study confirms that racial and jurisdictional bias riddles death sentencing in Maryland, finding that murders of whites by blacks and murders in Baltimore County are most likely to evoke death sentences.

Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich is inaugurated. A few days later Baltimore County State's Attorney seeks and secures a death warrant for Steven Oken. Ehrlich spokesperson tells media, "consider the moratorium lifted."

Attorney General Joseph Curran holds a press conference in Annapolis urging the outright abolition of the death penalty, becoming the nation's first sitting attorney general to take this position.

February 2003

The Maryland Court of Appeals stays the March execution date for Steven Oken by a 5-2 vote while it considers the constitutionality of the State's death penalty statute in light of the US Supreme Court's 2002 decision, Ring v. Arizona, which ruled that a jury (as opposed to a judge) should decide critical sentencing issues. The Court reopens the constitutionality issue narrowly decided in December 2001 by 4-3.

In the state and national media, revelations hit concerning fraudulent testimony given by police chemist in the Baltimore County case of Bernard Webster, exonerated by DNA in December 2002 after 20 years in prison on a wrongful rape conviction. Press coverage leads Baltimore County police to begin an audit of cases in which the chemist worked - at least 500 over her 10-year career.

March 2003

Despite immense statewide effort, a moratorium bill is narrowly defeated in the Maryland Senate by one vote.

May 2003

The Court of Appeals hears oral arguments in Oken v. Maryland.

August 2003

Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra O'Connor acknowledges for the first time the innocence of former death row prisoner Kirk Bloodsworth, originally freed in 1993 when DNA evidence demonstrated that he could not have raped and murdered nine-year old Dawn Hamilton in 1984. After stalling for years, O'Connor's office had submitted the 10-year old DNA evidence to a computer search and the real perpetrator of this heinous crime is finally identified.

November 2003

The Court of Appeals denies Oken's appeal, again refusing 4-3 to overturn the state's death statute and urge the General Assembly to change the law and raise the standard of evidence.

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February 2004

Delegate Salima Siler Marriott introduces a bill to repeal the death penalty in the House of Delegates with 40 co-sponsors.

March 2004

The Maryland Senate overwhelmingly (30-16) passes legislation that would have established the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment - a non-partisan, broadly represented panel charged with comprehensively reviewing the administration of the death penalty in Maryland and making comprehensive recommendations for addressing its flaws. The bill was never brought to a vote in the House of Delegates, where it was also expected to pass by a wide margin.

April and May 2004

A death warrant is signed for Steven Oken. Oken files challenges relating to the drug cocktail used in state executions, including the use of a drug commonly used for animal euthanasia, which banned in Maryland. The Court of Appeals denies this appeal.

June 2004

Maryland executes Steven Oken after US Supreme Court lifts last-minute stay of execution imposed and upheld by Federal District and Circuit Courts, respectively, and Governor Ehrlich refuses clemency.

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January 2005

The Court of Appeals summarily denies Wesley Baker's motion to re-open his case by raising, post-conviction, the University of Maryland findings of racial and jurisdictional disparities. But the Baltimore County case progresses on another motion, a motion to correct an illegal sentence, which also raises the study.

February 2005

Baltimore County seeks and secures a death warrant for Vernon Evans, setting his execution for the week of April 18th, after the County refuses to wait for Evans to file a new motion raising the University of Maryland study findings of racial and jurisdictional disparities. A few days later Evans, already under a death warrant, files the motion, bringing the number of prisoners challenging the death penalty based on the study to four - or half of the state's death row. Meanwhile, oral arguments are scheduled in the Court of Appeals for June in another Baltimore County case, that of Wesley Baker, who is also arguing the University of Maryland study.

Repeal legislation is introduced by Delegate Darryl Kelly and 38 co-sponsors in the House of Delegates and Senator Lisa Gladden and 11 co-sponsors in the Senate. Delegate Kelley introduces legislation creating the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment in the House.

April 2005

The Court of Appeals stays Vernon Evans' execution and agrees to hear oral arguments in his case, ultimately heard after Wesley Baker's, in September 2005.

October and November 2005

The Court of Appeals denies Baker's motion to correct an illegal sentence on strictly procedural grounds. Baker files a second application for post-conviction relief in an attempt to raise the merits of racial bias documented in the University of Maryland study. Baltimore County seeks to secure Baker's death warrant.

December 2005

Governor Robert Ehrlich denies clemency to Wesley Baker despite public outcry and Baker is executed.

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January 2006

Baltimore County seeks and secures February execution date for Vernon Evans.

February 2006

The Court of Appeals stays Vernon Evans' executions hours before it is scheduled to take place, agreeing to hear appeals almost identical to those from Wesley Baker, which were denied just prior to his December 5th execution.

May 2006

The Court of Appeals hears oral arguments in Vernon Evans' case, charging racial bias in death sentencing and challenging the fact that the jury that sentenced Evans to death never heard about his troubled childhood, including physical and sexual abuse, and a suicide attempt at age 10. The Court also hears arguments in a civil suit from Evans and public interest organizations challenging Maryland's regulations dictating execution by lethal injection - specifically the secretive process by which Maryland's "Execution Manual" was developed by the Department of Public Safety and how the manual does not follow state law. Currently, decisions in all of these legal challenges are pending.

June 2006

Administrative Law Judge Denise Oaks Shaffer rules in favor of Evans on his challenge to Maryland's lethal injection protocol, stating that the protocol should be developed in compliance with the state's Administrative Procedures Act. Adhering to the APA would require that lethal injection statutes be rewritten and include oversight from the legislature and attorney general, as well as provide for a period of public comment.

Public Safety Secretary Mary Ann Saar reverses Judge Shaffer's findings, reaffirming her contention that lethal injection procedures do not affect a wide population and thus are not regulations to be subject to the purview of the APA.

September 2006

A suit challenging Maryland's lethal injection statutes as unconstitutional in that they violate the 8th Amendments ban on cruel and unusual punishment is heard in US District Court in Baltimore. Evans' attorneys also charge that he is in particular danger of feeling excruciating pain during execution because his veins have been compromised by years of intravenous drug use. Testimony from Maryland execution team members shows them to be largely unqualified and incompetent.

October 2006

Attorneys for the State present arguments in US District Court as they attempt to defend Maryland's problematic execution procedures. They maintain that an execution is not a medical procedure and is thus not held to the same high standards. Closing arguments are scheduled for December 2006.

November 2006

Martin O'Malley, Mayor of Baltimore City and a death penalty opponent, defeats pro-captial punishment incumbent Robert Ehrlich and is elected Governor of Maryland.

December 2006

Maryland Court of Appeals rules that the state's lethal injection protocol was adopted unlawfully and is thus invalid. A defacto moratorium on executions is in place until the state either rewrites the guidelines in accordance with the Administrative Procedures Act (APA), or legislatively exempts the protocol from such process.

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January 2007

Bills to repeal the death penalty in Maryland are introduced, with record numbers of co-sponsors, in both the House and Senate of the Maryland General Assembly. Also introduced are a bill to expand the death penalty for first degree murder committed for witness intimidation and bills to exempt Maryland's death penalty protocol from the purview of the Administrative Procedures Act (APA).

February 2007

Hearings on the repeal bills are held in the House and Senate committees. In addition to hearing testimony from death row exonerees, family members of murder victims, law enforcement officials, prosecutors, and the public defenders' office, Governor O'Malley appears before both committees to speak in support of repeal - an extremely rare move for a sitting governor. That same day, Governor O'Malley also publishes an op-ed in the Washington Post, "Why I Oppose the Death Penalty."

Developments come about in the 8th Amendment challenge pending in US District Court when Judge Benson Legg allows the State more time to assess the level of difficulty invovled in finding trained medical personnel willing to participate in Maryland's executions. Judge Legg cites the pending repeal legislation as the reason for his ruling.

The Maryland Catholic Conference releases its latest polling on the death penalty and reveals that a full 61% of Marylanders believe that life without parole is an acceptable replacement for the death penalty. Even more significant is the marked increase in support of repeal among Maryland's African-American voters, where 77% indicated support for replacing executions with life without parole - up from 69% in 2005.

March 2007

For the first time in years, death penalty-related legislation is called to a vote in committee and both of the non-repeal bills receive unfavorable votes in the House Judiciary Committee. These votes not only mark an important victory for the repeal effort, but also mean that the current defacto moratorium will remain in place.

More than three dozen law enforcement officials, including former and sitting state's attorneys, police and corrections officers, and former prison wardens sign onto a letter calling for the full repeal of Maryland's death penalty. The letter is introduced to the General Assembly at a press conference in Annapolis, and marks the emergence of new "unlikely" voices joining the call for repeal.

Constituents flood the General Assembly with phone calls and letters urging their support of repeal, creating an intense pressure-cooker, particularly in the Senate, where the vote count is the most uncertain. In this tense environment, Senate Judical Proceedings Chair Brian Frosh calls the repeal bill to a vote where it fails to pass out of committee in a heartbreaking 5 - 5 deadlock.