Death row cases raise questions of bias

June 05, 1994|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,Sun Staff Writer

When Maryland held its first execution in more than three decades on May 17, it had the ideal candidate: a white multiple murderer who virtually volunteered for the death penalty.

But John F. Thanos, who killed three teen-agers during a week of crime in 1990, had little in common with the 14 men who remain on Maryland's death row.

They're fighting their executions, and they're expected once again to raise serious questions about racial and geographical bias in determining who gets the death penalty and why. Among the issues:

* Twelve of the 14 are black, although blacks represent only 25 percent of Maryland's population. National statistics on executions since 1976 show roughly the same disproportion.

* All but two were sentenced to die for killing whites, although blacks represent a disproportionate percentage of homicide victims. The two killers of blacks were involved in the same Prince George's County drug slaying -- with five victims.

* Ten of the 14 death penalty inmates committed their crimes in Baltimore County, a jurisdiction that has accounted for only 7 percent of Maryland's homicides since the death penalty was restored here in 1978. Two more Baltimore County inmates who once faced the death penalty hanged themselves in prison before their cases were resolved.

The racial and geographical disparities troubled the Governor's Commission on the Death Penalty when it issued its report last year. But the panel did not conclude that there was bias and dumped the issue on the General Assembly.

Those questions troubled some lawmakers, too. In April, black legislators and other death penalty opponents mustered enough votes to derail a Schaefer administration bill that would have shortened the death penalty appeals process.

"There's no question that the death penalty weighs heavily on the poor, the disadvantaged and black. This is acknowledged in every report that we read," said Sen. Decatur W. Trotter, a Prince George's Democrat who fought to speed up provisions.

But he and others failed to get an amendment allowing defendants to appeal death sentences on the basis of racial disproportion. A similar proposal in Congress, the Racial Justice Act, passed the House but failed in the Senate. It's now part of conference committee negotiations on the Omnibus Crime Bill. Opponents of the measures say they would virtually put an end to the death penalty.

While polls show public opinion overwhelmingly in favor of death sentences, judges and juries in Maryland seem less willing to hand them down now than they were during the 1980s.

Baltimore County has lost five of its last six attempts to get a death sentence. One of those lost cases involved the slayings of two Randallstown bank employees by robbers who forced them to lie on the floor of the vault and then shot them at point-blank range -- a crime that shocked and outraged the community.

In Baltimore City, a rare attempt to get the death sentence last year failed in an equally well-publicized case -- the rape, murder and robbery of a Franciscan nun in her North Baltimore convent.

County prosecutors did win the death penalty Friday in an 11-year-old case against drug dealer Anthony Grandison Jr., who engineered the 1983 contract killings of Scott Piechowicz and Susan Kennedy in a Pikesville motel. His original death sentence was overturned on appeal in 1992, but after a new sentencing trial last week, a Somerset County jury agreed that he should be executed.

While death penalty proponents and opponents argue over the statistics, they agree that death sentences are rare. With 6,605 homicides reported in Maryland from 1979 through 1992, prosecutors pursued the death penalty in only 104 trials, and only 14 of those resulted in death sentences that have been upheld so far.

One reason is that the vast majority of homicides don't qualify for the death penalty under Maryland law, which lists a variety of "aggravating" factors that elevate the crime to death penalty status.

Some involve the victim -- a law enforcement officer, a kidnap victim, a child, or multiple victims. Others involve the status of the defendant -- whether he was in prison, was trying to escape, was already under the death sentence, or whether he paid or was paid for the slaying.

The most frequently cited aggravating factor -- in more than half the cases -- was that the homicide occurred during a robbery, rape, arson, carjacking or other serious crime. The other reason the death penalty is so rare in Maryland is that a prosecutor must actively decide to seek it. Outside of Baltimore County, that seldom happens.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor, known as "the prosecutor who owns death row," said she asks for the death penalty in every homicide that qualifies under the law, as long as she can prove that the defendant was the actual killer without relying on finger-pointing by a co-defendant.

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