Homicide data should give death penalty foes pause

May 22, 2002|By Gregory Kane

REMEMBER, when reading these statistics, that it was the death penalty opponents who brought up the subject of race. They're the ones who contend that blacks on Maryland's death row are there in "disproportionate" numbers.

The statistics are from a Bureau of Justice study, "Homicide Trends in the U.S.," from 1976 to 1999. Part of the study lists "homicide trends by race," which for our purposes are most revealing.

First, a caveat: Statistics can prove almost anything the person using them wants to prove. Thus, the "study" on whether there is racial disparity in how the death penalty is administered in Maryland, being conducted by a University of Maryland professor, will probably show exactly what death penalty opponents want it to show. Any study done by employees of a college or university - many of which are no longer institutions of higher learning but hotbeds of leftist/liberal indoctrination - should be suspect. Discerning Marylanders might want to commission a follow-up, unbiased, bipartisan study to study the study.

Second, some encouragement: Blacks who object to those statistics suggesting disproportionate African-American participation in crime should know the Bureau of Justice figures have some unhappy news for whites, too.

Take, for example, the section called "victim/offender relationship." It seems whites kill their lovers at a higher rate than blacks, as well as children and the elderly. Whites are more likely to kill family members, so Caucasians might really want to keep an eye on Uncle Harry the next time he comes a-callin'.

Whites lead as victims in gang-related homicides. Contrary to what Hollywood would have you believe in films constantly depicting Crips and Bloods, whites lead as offenders - by 57 percent to 39 percent - in gang-related homicides.

And if we're talking murder in the workplace, it is no contest. About 85 percent of victims are white, while white offenders top the chart at 70 percent. Whites - especially conservatives - who champion racial profiling are expected to submit themselves for voluntary frisking when they show up for work tomorrow. (With Dan Rodricks sitting in front of me and Michael Olesker sitting behind me, I figure I'm pretty safe. I think.)

But the numbers that really concern us are those for felony murder. Why felony murder? Because committing a felony murder - killing someone in the commission of a robbery, rape or other felony - is the most likely way you'll be eligible for the death penalty in Maryland. Perpetrators of felony murder, because of the very definition of the term, are considered the most vicious and dangerous. They should be eligible for the death penalty.

So the question as far as racial disparity goes is this: Are blacks on death row out of proportion to their numbers as offenders in felony murder cases?

The Bureau of Justice figures don't suggest such. Black offenders account for 59 percent of felony murders; whites, 39 percent. What about the other claim of death penalty opponents - that blacks are more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white as opposed to black?

A more astute questioner would ask if blacks are more often the victims of felony homicides than whites. Again, the data suggest not. African-Americans comprise 42 percent of felony murder victims, as opposed to 53 percent for whites. While the federal study repeats the fact that most homicides are intraracial - 86 percent of white victims killed by whites and 94 percent of black victims killed by blacks - we can't ignore the fact that in interracial homicides where the offender doesn't know the victim, black-on-white murders exceed white-on-black murders by almost four times.

Ann Brobst, an assistant state's attorney in the much-maligned Baltimore County state's attorney's office, says the last study done of the death penalty in Maryland revealed that the percentage of blacks on death row corresponded to the percentage arrested for first-degree murder.

"Since the percentages have been borne out statistically," Brobst said, "they [death penalty opponents] have shifted their focus to the race of the victim."

If those victims happen to be white and the offenders black, death penalty opponents say, that suggests some inherent unfairness. But the data over a 23-year period suggest Maryland's felony murderers are getting a much fairer shake than their victims ever got.

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