Balto. County 2nd in death penalty study

National report measures rates of capital punishment

Official calls it misleading

Authors say ratio increases chance for reversal of sentences

February 11, 2002|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County ranks second among large counties nationwide in the rate that convicted murderers are sentenced to death, according to a study of capital punishment to be released today.

That increases the chance that the county's death sentences will be reversed on appeal, according to the report by a team of researchers from Columbia, Rutgers and New York universities.

The county, which has led the state for years in the number of defendants sent to death row, secured 34 death sentences -- for a rate of 56 for every 1,000 homicides reported -- between 1973 and 1995, the study says.

The county ranked second only to Pima County, Ariz., which had 63 death sentences -- a rate of 64 for every 1,000 -- in the same period, according to the report written by James S. Liebman, a Columbia law professor who has represented death-row inmates.

But unlike Pima County, Baltimore County had every death sentence imposed in those years reversed by an appellate court at least once, according to the report.

Liebman said the study examined 5,826 death sentences nationwide -- of which 4,546 have been reviewed at least once by an appeals court. It ranked jurisdictions that have imposed a death sentence at least five times and had at least 600 homicides between 1973 and 1995.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor, who received a copy of the 400-page report Friday, said the report's numbers may be misleading.

O'Connor, the county's top prosecutor since 1975, said the study included only death sentences imposed before 1995, so that the appeal records for many death row inmates were not examined.

She said the report also fails to mention that its statistics on reversal rates include the sentences struck down by two Supreme Court decisions in the 1980s -- which vacated every death sentence in Maryland and forced lawmakers to revise the state's death statute.

O'Connor seeks death sentences in every case that meets the state's death penalty requirements, with two exceptions: when the victim's relatives do not want the death penalty or when the evidence is based solely on a co-defendant's testimony.

But Liebman said the study shows that prosecutors who routinely seek death sentences have them reversed disproportionately more often than those who rarely seek them.

"Our main finding indicates that if we are going to have the death penalty, it should be reserved for the worst of the worst," he said.

The study ranks Prince George's County as one of the 10 jurisdictions least likely to sentence someone to die, with prosecutors securing death sentences six times for every 1,000 homicides from 1973 to 1995.

Baltimore City, with fewer than five death sentences imposed in those years, was not included in the rankings.

The study says that having judges run for election -- as they do in Maryland -- increases the risk of judicial error.

It also found that 82 percent of the cases retried after an appeal end in sentences less than death.

Of the 13 inmates on Maryland's death row, nine are from Baltimore County. By contrast, Baltimore City-- which has had 10 times more homicides than the county over the past 12 years -- has one death-row inmate.

Of the 38 states that have a death penalty, Maryland ranks 26th in the number of death-row inmates.

California has 602, Texas has 454 and Florida has 385, according to Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

Nationwide, 10 inmates have been executed this year, Dieter said.

Maryland's last execution was in 1998.

O'Connor is weighing whether to seek a death warrant for Wesley Eugene Baker, whose 1992 conviction for robbing and shooting a grandmother at Westview Mall was affirmed by the state's highest court last week.

Liebman called the contrast between Baltimore City and Baltimore County "one of the most dramatic examples" he found of disparities in how death sentences are imposed among jurisdictions.

The report says that race plays a key role in how often jurisdictions seek the death penalty, with death sentences more likely in areas where there is a higher risk of whites being murdered.

Death penalty opponents say that reinforces a major concern about racial disparities regarding who is sentenced to death in Maryland. Nine of Maryland's 13 death-row inmates are black.

Death penalty opponents are lobbying Gov. Parris N. Glendening to stop state executions until June 2003 -- allowing time, they say, to complete and distribute a study on whether death sentences are applied fairly in Maryland.

Sun staff writer Sarah Koenig contributed to this article.

Rate of death sentences: 1973 to 1995

Death Death sentence sentences Number of Jurisdiction rate* given homicides Pima County (Tucson), Ariz. 64 .......... 63 .............. 986

Baltimore County 56 ......... 34 ............... 612

Clark County (Las Vegas), Nev. 55 ......... 71 ............ 1,288

Pinellas County (St. Petersburg), Fla. 50 ......... 51 ............ 1,018

Oklahoma City, Okla. 50 ......... 68 ............ 1,361

Maricopa County (Phoenix), Ariz. 41 ....... 114 ............ 2,782

Hamilton County (Cincinnati), Ohio 40 ......... 29 ............... 727

Hillsborough County (Tampa), Fla. 36 .......... 67 ............ 1,839

Polk County, Fla. 35 .......... 31 ............... 894

Muscogee County, Ga. 33 ........... 20 ............... 607

*per 1,000 homicides

Source: James S. Liebman, Columbia University

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