Stay on executions puts national focus on Balto. County

State's attorney builds reputation of aggressively seeking death penalties

May 11, 2002|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's decision to temporarily halt executions has put the national spotlight on Baltimore County, which has more men on death row than all other Maryland jurisdictions combined.

The light may shine most intensely on Sandra A. O'Connor, the county's tough-as-nails state's attorney, who seeks the death penalty whenever possible.

When he announced his decision Thursday to make Maryland the second state in the nation to place a moratorium on executions, Glendening noted concerns that the death penalty was being disproportionately imposed by the county.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Saturday's Sun incorrectly reported the number of black inmates on Maryland's death row from Baltimore County cases. Six of nine are African-American.

Of the 13 men on death row, nine are from Baltimore County cases. In addition, a recent survey ranked the county second among large counties nationwide in the rate at which convicted murderers are sentenced to death.

"It is not unusual that states have a pocket of death penalty prosecutions, but in Maryland it is even more extreme than other places," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

In his announcement, Glendening also mentioned concerns that the death penalty unfairly targets minorities. Nine of 13 men on death row are black, including eight from Baltimore County cases.

Legal and political observers said yesterday that the reason so many county defendants end up on death row is simple: the state's attorney.

The popular O'Connor, they said, has a clear and unflinching policy of seeking the death penalty in first-degree murder cases where there is an aggravating factor such as robbery or rape.

O'Connor, a Republican who has held the office since 1975 and is up for re-election, was unavailable to comment yesterday.

Assistant State's Attorney S. Ann Brobst said that O'Connor's aggressive stance on seeking the death penalty keeps the county from having an inconsistent and discriminatory policy.

"Sandy's policy is a fair policy," Brobst said Thursday. "Her critics will even tell you it's fair."

Two exceptions

O'Connor, who has not faced an election opponent since 1986, 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 and when the evidence is based solely on a co-defendant's testimony.

By comparison, prosecutors in Baltimore City and Prince George's County - two jurisdictions with far more homicides - almost never seek the death penalty. The county has averaged 31 homicides a year since 1990, while Baltimore City has averaged 310. One death row inmate is from a Baltimore case.

O'Connor's policy strikes fear in suspects - and their attorneys - when it comes time for a trial, defense attorneys said.

"As a defense attorney, I'd rather be in any [other] county anywhere in the state when it comes to the decision process on the death penalty," said Fred Warren Bennett, a Greenbelt attorney who represents two men on death row.

O'Connor's desire to seek the death penalty is often helped by the willingness of juries to go along with her prosecutors.

Overall, county residents are considered political moderates - Democrat Al Gore received 30,000 more votes than Republican George Bush did in the last presidential election - but lean more conservatively when it comes to crime.

"They like the quality of life they have in the county and the fact the crime rate is less than the city," said Gary S. Bernstein, a Towson attorney.

Bernstein, a self-described liberal Democrat, said that is one reason O'Connor remains wildly popular, even among his liberal friends.

"I wouldn't consider running against her," Bernstein said. "I have people come to me and ask me to run against [Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy] all the time, but no one has ever asked me to run against Sandy."

Bernstein said O'Connor's consistent policy insulates her from criticism that she demon- strates racial bias in seeking the death penalty.

"Any attempt to paint her with racial bias is outrageous," Bernstein said. "She is intellectually honest, and this is coming from a liberal Democrat."

Dieter, whose organization takes no position on the death penalty, said that he believes it is a problem when a prosecutor in one county actively uses the death penalty as a sentencing tool when prosecutors in others do not.

"The death penalty depends on what side of the street you commit the crime on," Dieter said. "It makes for a very arbitrary result."

Andrew C. White, a former federal prosecutor who opposes the death penalty, said Dieter's concerns should not necessarily be blamed on O'Connor.

"It could just as easily be said the problem is not with Baltimore County, but with counties that do not uniformly seek the death penalty," White said.

Mitigating factors

Bennett said O'Connor's position harms the criminal justice system because it fails to take into account other factors, such as a defendant's upbringing.

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