A stay for Baker

May 08, 2002

IN LESS than four months, Gov. Parris N. Glendening will get the results of a study he commissioned to determine whether racial bias taints decisions about who gets the death penalty in Maryland.

But next week, the governor is due to authorize the execution of Wesley Eugene Baker -- a black man whose conviction and sentence for killing a white woman make manifest the very issues the study will address.

Killing Mr. Baker before the study's results are known would be a grievous absurdity.

Governor Glendening demonstrated his concerns for fairness when he commissioned the death penalty study two years ago. Lt. Gov. (and current gubernatorial candidate) Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has endorsed the idea of a moratorium on executions until the study is completed.

Now the governor must put the weight of his actions behind those sentiments. He can stay Mr. Baker's execution -- and prove that fairness matters most in death penalty cases.

The relevance of the governor's study results to Maryland's death row inmates could not be clearer. Since 1977, when executions were reauthorized in Maryland, nearly 75 percent of murderers sent to death row have had white victims -- despite the fact that nearly three quarters of all Maryland homicide victims are African-Americans. A federal study showed that Maryland killers with white victims were seven times more likely than those who kill blacks to face execution.

Additionally, state data show African-American defendants are more likely to face death than whites, and in many jurisdictions, blacks are grossly underrepresented in jury pools for death penalty cases.

Sadly, those trends place Maryland among unfavorable national company. States like Florida, Louisiana and Texas -- which execute far more prisoners than Maryland -- report lesser discrepancies in the likelihood of a death sentence for killers with victims of different races.

Mr. Baker was convicted of killing Jane Tyson in 1991 while stealing her purse in a suburban mall parking lot -- an indisputably terrible crime. But the only factor that qualified him for death under Maryland law was that the murder was committed in the course of another crime.

Blacks are more frequently killed under those circumstances than whites, but only nine times since 1977 has the state sent men to death row for killing blacks while committing other crimes. By contrast, prosecutors have won death sentences against 35 people for killing whites in the course of committing another crime -- including nearly half the current occupants of death row.

Obviously, it's impossible to predict whether the death penalty study will find that these issues constitute systematic bias. And the study could recommend any number of remedies, should it find the system is racially poisoned.

But executing Mr. Baker before the commission makes its report would deny him any relief he might be due from the study's results. And it would deny all Marylanders the unwavering level of confidence that should accompany any decision by the state to take a life.

Mr. Glendening, now in the last year of his final term, should not underestimate the importance of his decision: His choice pits a legacy of caution against one of recklessness and indiscretion. It should be clear which is best for him -- as well as for Maryland.

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