Racial factor found in Md. capital cases

Those who kill whites are more likely to face death penalty, study says

`Systemic disparities'

Jurisdiction also plays big role, examination of state statute finds

January 08, 2003|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Defendants who kill white people in Maryland are significantly more likely to be charged with capital murder and sentenced to death than are killers of nonwhites, according to a comprehensive study of the state's death penalty that was released yesterday.

The study also found that jurisdiction matters a great deal in Maryland. The likelihood that prosecutors will seek capital murder charges in Baltimore County, for instance, is 13 times greater than in Baltimore, even when other factors such as the circumstances of the crime and a county's racial makeup are taken into account.

Statistically, the deadliest combination for defendants is to be a black offender accused of killing a white victim, the study says. Inmates on Maryland's death row bear out the findings: Of the 12 men awaiting execution, eight are black, nine are from Baltimore County, and all were convicted of killing white people.

"There are systemic disparities in our handling of the death penalty," said Raymond Paternoster, a University of Maryland criminologist who spent 2 1/2 years gathering and analyzing data. He and a team of researchers ran the numbers through myriad statistical models to try to rule out factors that could skew their findings of racial and geographic discrepancies, he said.

"I had these effects," he said. "I threw the kitchen sink at them, and I couldn't get them to go away."

The $225,000 study was commissioned by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and paid for by the state. It has become the central component of Maryland's debate over a death penalty moratorium. By yesterday afternoon, death penalty opponents and some criminal justice experts had hailed it as the first hard evidence of what they have suspected all along.

"I think that the results are deeply disturbing," said Katy O'Donnell, chief of the capital defense division of the Office of the Public Defender. "They appear to validate our worst concerns. ... This says the very prosecution of a case as a capital case is not based upon the facts but upon where the crime was committed and color of the victim's skin."

O'Donnell and Michael A. Millemann, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law who specializes in constitutional and death penalty issues, agree that the study could become the basis for death row inmates to appeal their convictions to the Maryland Court of Appeals.

Del. Salima S. Marriott, one of the General Assembly's most outspoken death penalty opponents, said yesterday that she will introduce emergency legislation today to extend the moratorium indefinitely, in defiance of Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s intention to lift the moratorium when he takes office Jan. 15.

Such a legislative feat would be nearly impossible without the enthusiastic backing of the House and Senate presiding officers and the chairmen of the committees that would hear the legislation. Marriott said yesterday that she has received no commitments from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, an opponent of the moratorium, or incoming House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who voted for the moratorium in 2001.

Some prosecutors defended yesterday their use of the death penalty, saying the racial statistics were skewed by Prince George's County and Baltimore, majority-black jurisdictions where most of the state's murders occur, but where death penalty cases are almost never tried. By contrast, Baltimore County and Harford County are majority-white, and prosecutors there regularly file capital murder charges.

`Racially neutral'

"We knew going into the study that our policy was racially neutral, and the statistics back us up," said Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor, whose office seeks capital murder charges in every eligible case. "We don't look at the race of the victim; we don't look at the race of the defendant. That has been in our policy for 20 years and will continue to be."

O'Connor and Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas Gansler said the study did show jurisdictional variations, but they said that was to be expected because prosecutorial discretion is integral to the system.

As four death warrants were inching toward his desk for review, Glendening reversed his position on the moratorium and declared in May that he would not approve any executions before the next legislature had a chance to consider the study. Proponents of bills calling for a moratorium also argued that the study was vital.

Yesterday, Ehrlich repeated his intention to lift the moratorium, which he considers politically motivated and unnecessary.

He believes racial disparities exist but said there are circumstances that warrant the death penalty, such as the sniper shootings and the rash of shootings in Baltimore over the weekend.

"The ultimate sanction can deter crime," Ehrlich said. "It's a serious subject. It's a subject we take seriously. Race plays a part all the way through the process."

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