Don't reinstate biased death penalty

January 10, 2003|By Jen Corlew

WASHINGTON - University of Maryland researchers have released the most sophisticated study on race and the death penalty ever conducted in the United States, but Maryland's incoming governor has already written it off.

Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has announced that upon taking office next week he will immediately lift the moratorium on executions in Maryland that was instituted following questions about racial disparity in the application of the death penalty.

Dismissing the $225,000 report's findings would be an injustice, not to mention a cavalier waste of taxpayer money, given the strong indications of racial bias in Maryland capital punishment.

The findings of this research deserve careful study and a response from the legislature, not a slot on dusty university bookshelves. The General Assembly is entitled to review the findings and develop recommendations to stop racial disparity in the application of Maryland's death penalty before the moratorium is lifted.

The death penalty system in Maryland, as elsewhere in the United States, is plagued by numerous flaws, including racial bias in its application. Two of every three Maryland death row inmates - totaling eight of 13 - are black, the highest percentage of any state.

In Maryland, African-Americans are far more likely to receive a death sentence for the murder of a white person than for the murder of an African-American. Four of every five homicide victims are black, yet not one person on death row was convicted of killing an African-American; all of the victims were white. The pattern of Maryland's death row strongly suggests that a white person's life is considered more valuable than the life of a racial minority.

Former Maryland death row inmate Flint Gregory Hunt personifies this problem. An African-American, he was executed in 1997 for the murder of a white police officer. While he was in prison in 1989, his common-law wife, an African-American woman, was raped and beaten to death in Maryland by a white man. Her killer is scheduled for release this year after serving less than 15 years, although his crimes were death-eligible.

Justice is supposed to be blind. How can that be true if the race of the victim determines the penalty?

In a 1999 report, "Killing with Prejudice: Race and the Death Penalty," Amnesty International found that "racism has played an appalling and destructive role in the short history of the United States. Although there have been substantial efforts to confront racial discrimination in U.S. society since the 1950s, the country's capital justice system continues to resonate with the racist echoes of the past."

Amnesty International has continually called for full and impartial reviews of death penalty procedures, with emphasis on the elimination of racial bias. The organization opposes the death penalty under all circumstances but, recognizing that abolition is not going to happen immediately, has continually called for full and impartial reviews of death penalty procedures.

The University of Maryland's statistical review of racial factors in the application of the death penalty deserves the attention of elected officials who represent Maryland citizens of all races.

Four death row inmates in Maryland have exhausted their legal appeals. The state should not resume executions before the General Assembly has had an opportunity to review the findings of the university's study. This fortitude will ensure that the results of the study can be evaluated to ensure the fairness, justice and integrity of Maryland's judicial system.

Jen Corlew is regional media director for Amnesty International USA.

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