State has to study execution

March 20, 2000|By Stephanie B. Gibson

NO ONE in Maryland should want a system of capital punishment that sentences people to death unfairly.

That's why House lawmakers are considering a bill to temporarily halt executions. It is not a moratorium on seeking death sentences. It is not a moratorium on imposing death sentences. And it is not a moratorium on the lengthy -- some say too lengthy -- appeals process that follows a death sentence.

The bill (HB 388) only temporarily stops the clock on the final step of the process -- the execution. Anyone at the end of his appeals process when the moratorium goes into effect will still be at the end of his road when the moratorium is lifted.

It is not a bill to abolish the death penalty.

In fact, many groups working toward the abolition of the death penalty oppose this and other moratorium bills because they do not end the death penalty permanently.

Careful consideration

But the temporary halt would allow researchers at the University of Maryland, College Park, to examine whether a pattern of racial bias exists in the state's application of the death penalty.

Advocates of capital punishment should be particularly concerned about this issue because only a fairly applied system of capital punishment will withstand constitutional challenge. Capital punishment proponents insist that the system is fair. This study will permit us to be sure of that.

Concerns about the fairness of the state's use of the death penalty are longstanding. A commission appointed in the early 1990s by Gov. William Donald Schaefer found that "racial disparities in its implementation remain a matter of legitimate concern."

A 1996 task force appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening specifically recommended the study. It has taken four years for the appropriation to find its way into the budget. Mr. Glendening has set aside $225,000 to fund the work, a minuscule amount compared with other allocations. It is a small price for the state to pay to ensure that justice is served.

Seventeen men reside on Maryland's death row, including 12 African-Americans. The disproportionate makeup of death row itself is almost secondary to some other statistics. Maryland Uniform Crime Reports persistently show that 75 percent of the victims of homicide in this state are African-American. But 75 percent of the victims of those who wind up on death row are white.

Even capital punishment supporters must proceed with caution when statistics like this demonstrate a clear bias and the state's own task force calls the system into question.

During recent hearings on the moratorium bill, Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., who served on the 1996 task force, said members quickly discovered it was impossible to analyze the data collected.

Trying to examine raw data without analysis or interpretation is akin to looking at an X-ray without any training in radiology. You may see that something is there -- a stomach perhaps -- but how can you tell if that odd spot is cancer or just a blemish on the film?

But what was clear to the member of the task force were many seeming blemishes in the process. And that further careful analysis is needed to determine if and when racial bias enters the system.

Touchy subject

Conversations about capital punishment make people -- especially people who are politicians -- nervous. And the headlines are full of contradictions, from Gov. George Ryan's move to place a moratorium on an obviously flawed system in Illinois to presidential nominee Gov. George W. Bush's insistence that Texas has never executed an innocent man.

Death penalty proponents are on their guard, opponents are on the attack and the political football factor increases exponentially. But if capital punishment is ever to be discussed dispassionately, politics must be removed from those conversations and reason and fairness must prevail. This study is necessary to set the stage for a rational examination of Maryland's death penalty.

Halting executions during the period of the study will demonstrate that the people of Maryland are serious about wanting a justice system that is fair and equitable.

It is surely wrong to execute while even the possibility of bias exists.

Stephanie B. Gibson is an associate professor at the University of Baltimore.

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