Cardinal William Keeler made a rare prison visit Monday to tell a convicted killer awaiting execution in Maryland that the leaders of the state's three Roman Catholic archdioceses are asking the governor to spare his life. Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore, prayed at the prison with Wesley Baker and advise him of the clemency request.
Keeler said this was the first time he visited a death row inmate. He described the meeting as "very prayerful and spiritual." Baker is not Catholic but is becoming more religious, the cardinal said. The death penalty sends the wrong message about the sacredness of life, the cardinal said.
Keeler, Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and Bishop Michael A. Saltarelli, of Wilmington, Delaware, sent a letter Monday to Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich to commute the sentence in favor of life without parole, a spokesman for the Baltimore archdiocese said.
When asked if it is right for religious leaders to put pressure on the governor, Keeler said, "This is an opportunity when we can and should speak out on behalf of human life." About two dozen protesters greeted the cardinal outside the prison after his visit. Among them was State Delegate Salima Siler Marriott, a Democrat, who carried a sign that read "Not in my name."
Marriott said she wanted to distance herself from government sponsorship of execution. "There are alternatives," she said. "That alternative is life without parole. That's what the government should do." Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell told WBAL-TV late Monday, "The governor fully respects Cardinal Keeler and his beliefs. The governor is committed to giving this case a thorough and objective review."
In June 2004, the three also appealed to Ehrlich to spare the life of triple convicted murderer and rapist Steven Oken, who was executed later that month. Greg Massoni, an Ehrlich spokesman, said the governor's office had not yet received the request and would wait to hear what Keeler had to say before responding.
Baker is scheduled to die the week of Dec. 5 for the 1991 murder of a woman as her grandchildren watched.
Last week, the state's highest court rejected a request for a stay of execution. After the ruling, Gary Christopher, a federal public defender representing Baker, said he would file an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court seeking a new hearing on the death sentence. Baker also has another appeal pending with the state appeals court, the AP reports.
The Roman Catholic Church has long opposed capital punishment. When Keeler sought clemency for Oken, he argued that developed societies no longer need the death penalty because they can protect themselves from violent criminals through other means, such as life in prison without parole.