Balto. County has most inmates on death row

Policy, demographics seen as reasons

February 08, 2002|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Supporters call it a necessity and critics consider it barbaric, too expensive and unfair.

But no matter how someone feels about Maryland's death penalty, one point is certain: It is given more often to defendants in Baltimore County than anywhere else in the state.

Of the 13 inmates on death row, nine are from Baltimore County.

The figures are even more startling given that a murder conviction is a basic requirement for a death sentence and that Baltimore City -- which has one inmate on death row -- averages 10 times more homicides each year than the county.

The city has averaged 310 homicides a year since 1990. The county's average for the same period was 31.

The county's numbers on the death penalty have prompted admiration and criticism.

"Baltimore County is out of control," says Michael Stark, a spokesman for the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.

The group held a rally in Towson on Wednesday to support a moratorium on executions and to protest county Circuit Judge Alexander Wright Jr.'s decision this week to sentence Courtney Bryant, 19, to death for a slaying December 2000 in Hunt Valley.

Stark and other opponents say that the death penalty is discriminatory, pointing out that nine of the 13 inmates on Maryland's death row are black.

But Baltimore County also has become a role model for death penalty supporters.

"I've been thinking I should go down and watch Baltimore County prosecutors do this because they're doing something right," said Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly.

Legal experts say there might be two reasons for the county's high numbers: demographics and the death penalty policy of the county's top prosecutor.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor has sought the death penalty in every case that qualified for it in the last two decades. She makes two exceptions: when the victim's relatives do not want a death sentence for a defendant and when the evidence is based solely on a co-defendant's testimony. O'Connor says the policy prevents critics from charging discrimination.

"To me, it's the only fair way of doing it. Otherwise no matter how much you try, you run the risk of raising questions about whether you're being race neutral, whether you're being gender neutral," O'Connor said.

Demographics is another factor, experts say. The county is three-fourths white and more conservative than the city.

"You find that whites overwhelmingly support the death penalty, while blacks are more evenly divided," said Richard Dieter, a lawyer who is executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

The Maryland Poll, conducted for The Sun last month, showed that 60 percent of Baltimore residents surveyed supported a moratorium on the death penalty. In Baltimore County, 40 percent favored the moratorium.

"It's not just conservative in the county, it's this `law and order' mentality to the whole system," said Margaret Meade, a criminal defense lawyer who represented Joseph Metheny. Metheny, whose death sentence was overturned last year by the Court of Appeals, was tried by city prosecutors and convicted before a county jury after the case was moved.

Meade said that Baltimore County juries tend to side with police in criminal cases.

"There's more of a tendency for juries to believe a police officer and where it's an officer's word against a defendant, particularly if it's a young African-American defendant, the assumption is the defendant's lying," she said.

Observers say that O'Connor's policy may be one reason she enjoys such popular support.

Elected as a Republican in 1974, she has run unopposed since 1986.

"I think generally a lot of Baltimore County people are satisfied with her approach," said James T. Smith Jr., a Democrat who resigned his Circuit Court judgeship in September to run for county executive this year.

O'Connor said her policy has nothing to do with politics.

"The policy came first and the polls came later," she said.

But some legal experts say seeking a death sentence isn't always worth the cost given the lengthy appeals guaranteed a death row inmate. Appeals can take 20 years.

"The cases at every stage of the process are longer," Dieter said. "You usually have two lawyers on each side. They use more experts and you have an appeals process that is by and large paid for by the government."

Estimates of the costs of a capital case have ranged from $400,000 to $2.2 million, Dieter said.

In Maryland, the Court of Appeals gives greater scrutiny to death row cases by providing an automatic review unavailable to other criminal defendants.

The result is that death penalty cases are often reversed. This week, the state's highest court reversed the 1996 convictions of Clarence Conyers Jr. and granted a reprieve to Steven Oken, convicted in 1991. In September, a federal judge in Baltimore found there was insufficient evidence for Kevin Wiggins' 1989 conviction.

The Maryland attorney general's office has appealed the Wiggins ruling, and county prosecutors plan to retry Conyers.

In Oken's case, Court of Appeals Judge Dale R. Cathell issued a dissenting opinion that recommended abolishing the death penalty because of the costs and the lengthy appeals process.

"The process must appear to those outside the system to be a game played by lawyers and judges, rather than the serious process it should be," he wrote.

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