Racial bias study may play role in death-row appeals

Lawyers say they'll use it but question effectiveness

January 09, 2003|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Lawyers for several of Maryland's death-row inmates say they will use a new study suggesting the death penalty is racially biased to try to stop their clients from being executed.

But they say convincing a judge could be difficult because of hurdles established by the Supreme Court for reversing death sentences on the basis of racial disparities.

A study of the state's death-penalty law released Tuesday showed that defendants convicted of first-degree murder were more likely to be sentenced to death if their victims were white.

"We're not just guessing anymore as to whether race plays a factor in who gets the death penalty in Maryland. We know that it does," said Gary W. Christopher, a veteran criminal defense lawyer representing death-row inmate Wesley Baker.

All 12 inmates on Maryland's death row were sentenced to die for killing whites, though a majority of Maryland's homicide victims were black. The study also noted that eight of the 12 inmates are black and that nine were convicted for murders in the same jurisdiction - Baltimore County.

But supporters of the law say the statistics showing racial disparities are skewed because prosecutors in Prince George's County and Baltimore City, majority black jurisdictions where most of the state's murders occur, almost never seek the death penalty.

"When you look at the statistics on a county-by-county basis, which is the fair way to do it, there is no evidence of any racial bias," said Steve Bailey, Baltimore County deputy state's attorney.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening noted concerns about racial and geographic disparities in May when he ordered a moratorium on executions until the University of Maryland death-penalty study was completed.

Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has pledged to lift the moratorium and allow executions to be carried out when he takes office.

If Ehrlich lifts the moratorium, Baker is one of several death-row inmates who have nearly exhausted their legal appeals and could be executed by the end of the year.

But several lawyers for death-row inmates say the study may be a basis for new trials.

"We'll be using it in our case," said Peter Keith, who is seeking a new trial for death-row inmate Kenneth Collins. Collins' request is being reviewed in Somerset County Circuit Court, where he was convicted in 1988 after his case was moved from Baltimore County.

Mary Davis, a lawyer for Anthony Grandison, said she was reviewing the death-penalty report's 79-page summary to search for arguments supporting her position that Grandison was unfairly convicted.

"There's a lot of material to go over," Davis said.

Grandison and Vernon Evans were convicted in the 1983 shooting deaths of two people at a Pikesville motel.

Katy O'Donnell, chief of the Maryland Public Defender's capital defense division, said the report highlights the need for changes to the state's 24-year-old law because it shows racial disparities from the wide discretion prosecutors have in deciding when to seek a death sentence.

"If we know that this is something that's happening at the outset of a case, we have a responsibility to reform the system," she said.

Keith said the fact that there are only 12 inmates on death row while there were 1,311 defendants eligible for the death penalty from 1978 to 1999 shows how arbitrarily the death statute is being enforced.

"You have to ask yourself is a system fair where you have one person, namely the Baltimore County state's attorney, determining whether people live or die," Keith said.

But supporters say the death-penalty law is fair.

"One person doesn't determine who lives and who dies," Bailey said. "Guilt or innocence is decided by a judge or jury, the sentence is decided by a judge or jury and they both are then reviewed by the Court of Appeals and several other appellate courts."

The last inmate executed in Maryland was Tyrone Gilliam, who died by lethal injection in 1998 for kidnapping and fatally shooting Christine J. Doerfler during a robbery that netted $3.

Legal experts said yesterday that there is no way to know which inmate would be the first executed if the moratorium is lifted.

The two inmates who have exhausted their legal appeals are Steven Howard Oken, convicted of a 1987 murder in Baltimore County, and Heath William Burch, convicted of a 1995 murder in Prince George's County.

Fred W. Bennett, who represents Oken, said findings in the report also could be used by white defendants such as Oken.

The study found, for instance, that white defendants charged with the murder of white victims in Baltimore County are more likely to face a death sentence than black defendants charged elsewhere in the state.

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