UM study may shape future of death row

Details of 6,000 homicides, effect of race, geography on terms to be reviewed

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

The future and fairness of Maryland's death penalty may depend on the mountain of facts being collected by a University of Maryland criminology professor who shuns the spotlight and a group of graduate students working with him.

Professor Raymond Paternoster is working with seven research assistants who are fanning out across Maryland to collect and examine up to 250 details about each of the 6,000 homicide cases reported in Maryland since 1978.

They will pore over a broad range of information, from weapons used in the slayings to the killers' educational background.

And when the $225,000 state-mandated study is released in September, it will probably become the focus of an intense debate over the death penalty.

On Thursday, Gov. Parris N. Glendening imposed a moratorium on executions for up to a year so that Paternoster's study can be evaluated.

Until then, Glendening said, it makes no sense to proceed with next week's execution of Wesley Baker, or any of the four other executions expected in the next few months.

He said he is concerned that nine of the 13 inmates on Maryland's death row are black and that only one of the 13 inmates was sentenced to die for killing black victims. He is concerned that nine of the 13 were prosecuted by one jurisdiction - Baltimore County.

A UM spokesman said yesterday that Paternoster is declining media interviews until he completes his study, which, along with the moratorium, could become an issue in this fall's statewide elections.

In a written description of the study released yesterday, Paternoster said he will use a scientific approach to determine whether minorities are being singled out for death sentences. He also will address whether there is a geographic imbalance in how the death statute is enforced, he said.

Paternoster, a death penalty opponent who completed a study of South Carolina's death penalty system in the 1980s, intends to examine every first-degree and second-degree murder conviction in Maryland from when the state reinstated capital punishment in 1978 through December 1999.

For each homicide to be studied, there are 70 pages of questions to be answered, including the defendant's psychiatric and criminal history, the type of murder weapon used, whether the killing was drug-related, whether the slaying was committed during a rape or robbery, or whether it was the result of domestic violence.

In addition, the defendant's race and that of his victim, the relationship of the defendant and the victim, mitigating factors such as the defendant's educational level and the defendant's family history will also be studied.

"It's a massive project," said Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly, a death penalty proponent who was on the Death Penalty Task Force that recommended that Glendening commission a study in 2000.

Paternoster's researchers are also culling data from state prison records and parole and probation records and have sent letters to Maryland's 24 state's attorneys requesting access to their homicide cases.

"We've all agreed to give them everything they asked for," said Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee, who received a letter from Paternoster in November.

The researchers have yet to show up in Anne Arundel County but were in Harford County earlier this year, Cassilly said.

Those who know Paternoster said they expect the study to be thorough and balanced.

In his study of South Carolina's death penalty, Paternoster found that the race of the victim was a factor in capital cases, particularly when a black defendant had killed a white person.

In Maryland, only Darris Ware, a black man from Anne Arundel County, is on death row for killing blacks.

Anne Marie Cordner, a criminal justice consultant who analyzed the South Carolina data with Paternoster and co-wrote articles with him in the 1980s, said, "He's very thorough and very smart."

Paternoster is a 1973 graduate of the University of Delaware. He has a doctorate from Florida State University, has been a member of the UM criminal justice faculty since 1983 and has been writing about capital punishment for two decades.

"No legal sanction has produced more debate and greater controversy than capital punishment. Although the debate on the death penalty encompasses many issues ... a recurrent theme has been the manner in which it has been applied," he wrote in a Northwestern University Law School journal in 1982.

If the General Assembly uses Paternoster's study to rewrite the state's death penalty statute, the fate of those on death row will depend on how the new law is written, state legal experts said.

Those on death row could be given sentences of life or life without parole, experts said.

"If the law is, in fact, changed at all, the governor and the legislature would have to think about that and address those issues," said Gary Bair, head of the Maryland attorney general's criminal appeals division.

Death penalty supporters contend that there is no reason to change the law.

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