Doubts on halt to death penalty

1-year moratorium in Senate bill falls short, professor says

April 05, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

The researcher charged with studying whether the death penalty is handed out fairly in Maryland said yesterday he couldn't possibly meet the deadline required in the Senate version of legislation that would temporarily halt state executions.

"It just cannot be done," said Ray Paternoster of the criminology department at the University of Maryland, College Park. "There's just too much information to be gathered in too many places. It's labor-intensive work, like reading 200 pages to get one piece of information."

The House of Delegates has passed a bill that would impose a two-year moratorium on executions while the study determines whether the death penalty is given unfairly to African-Americans.

But Tuesday, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee agreed to back only a one-year version of the bill, which will likely come to the Senate floor today.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening indicated for the first time yesterday that he probably would sign a moratorium bill if one is sent to him. But it might not get that far.

Senate Republicans threatened yesterday to filibuster if the measure's supporters try to restore the moratorium to two years - as some have vowed. The GOP senators could prevail, especially if conservative Democrats help them.

If the Senate were to pass a one-year bill - which House proponents say they could accept - Paternoster says he'd be in a bind.

He began work on the study last September, after Glendening put $225,000 in the budget to pay for it, and says he figured he could finish in two years.

The Senate moratorium bill calls for study results by this December. Paternoster says it's a deadline he can't meet. According to him, this is what's involved:

Seven doctoral students in criminology are working 20 hours a week on the study, which will examine whether the state's decision to seek or impose the death penalty was influenced by race, social class or location.

The students are gathering information on Maryland homicide cases since 1978, when the death penalty was reinstated here - about 4,000 cases. Because cases aren't centrally organized, students must sift through corrections records, police files, trial transcripts and other documents stored all over the state.

For each case, they fill in an 80-page list requiring about 300 pieces of information about the defendant and his or her victims - everything from previous arrests to the number of stab wounds to evidence at trial.

Once they have culled capital murder cases from other homicides, they will isolate race and class as influences by ruling out other factors such as the viciousness of the crime and a defendant's criminal history.

The result will be a statistical analysis of whether a black or poor person has a higher probability of getting a death sentence than, for instance, a white person who can afford to hire his own lawyer.

In the 1980s, Paternoster conducted the same study in South Carolina. "We found the race of the victim mattered substantially, particularly for black defendants who slayed white victims," he said.

Moratorium proponents fear the same could be true in Maryland, where nine of the 13 men on death row are black.

Probably no one is more interested in the study and the moratorium legislation than the four inmates who could be executed by year's end. Moratorium opponents have been pointing to details of their crimes as reason the legislation should not go forward.

In 1991, Wesley Baker of East Baltimore robbed a 49-year-old grandmother in a Westview Mall parking lot. He stole her purse - which had $10 inside - and shot her to death in front of her two small grandchildren.

Steven Howard Oken abducted, sexually assaulted and shot a White Marsh newlywed twice in the head in November 1987. Two weeks later, he sexually assaulted and murdered his wife's sister. He then went to Kittery, Maine, where he killed a female clerk at a motel where he had stopped.

The other two men are Vernon L. Evans Jr. and Anthony Grandison.

In 1983, Grandison, a Baltimore County drug lord, hired Evans for $9,000 to kill two witnesses in a federal drug case against him. Evans went to the Warren House Motor Hotel in Pikesville and gunned down a 27-year-old male clerk and a female clerk he mistakenly took to be his second target. The woman turned out to be his target's sister.

Yesterday, Fred Warren Bennett, Oken's lawyer, said he and his client were watching the moratorium bill's progress - but not counting on it. "He's very, very stressed out as you can well imagine," he said of Oken. "Sure, he's following it, and hoping against hope that it would be approved, as I assume everyone on death row would be."

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