Death-penalty study fails to expose the true disparity

January 15, 2003|By GREGORY KANE

THREE-CARD monte. The shell game. Bait and switch. All well-known con games.

Add a fourth. The 2003 study of the death penalty in Maryland.

The study, conducted by University of Maryland criminologist Raymond Paternoster, took more than two years to complete. Maryland taxpayers had to pony up $225,000 for this bat guano.

And with due deference to the good professor, that's what the results are. What did we learn? That there are more blacks than whites on Maryland's death row? Sorry. Knew that.

Did we learn that most of them are there for killing whites? Sorry. Knew that too. So what's the startling news to come out of this study?

Blacks who murder whites are more likely to end up on Maryland's death row. Death-penalty opponents went immediately into poor, oppressed black man mode when they heard the news. The numbers showed, they declared, racial disparity in the system.

The numbers show no such thing. What we know from the study is that it's jurisdiction that matters, not race.

The study "found no evidence that the race of the defendant matters in the processing of capital cases in the state." So what's the problem? How do you prove racial bias when the defendants are treated equally?

Ripping a page from the book of a tomcatting man of the cloth who claims he's doing it to promote chastity, death-penalty opponents came up with the solution. The victims! We'll attack the death penalty on behalf of murder victims!

It's only when blacks kill whites, capital punishment opponents imply, that prosecutors seek the death penalty. Nine of Maryland's death-row inmates are from Baltimore County. All were convicted of killing whites. Six are black. For the anti-death penalty crowd, that's all the proof they need.

Why they haven't walked up to Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra O'Connor and called her a racist to her face is not clear. But that's what they're not so subtly implying. O'Connor has taken this smear with dignity and grace. She didn't get testy. She just got some data of her own.

Three of the African-American inmates on death row from Baltimore County weren't even tried there. So it wasn't a Baltimore County judge or jury that decided the death penalty.

Anthony Grandison and Kenneth Collins were tried in Somerset County and Wesley Baker was tried in Harford County. O'Connor provided other data, for free, which puts the information we were taken for 225 Gs in some perspective.

Stephen Bailey, a Baltimore County deputy state's attorney, sent this memo to O'Connor on Jan. 2:

"Ray Paternoster identified 486 [Baltimore County] cases in which a defendant was charged with murder going back over 20 years. Of the 486 cases, we were able to determine the race of the defendant in 474 cases. We were able to determine the race of the victim in 479 cases.

"Of the 474 defendants charged with murder, ... 55% were black, ... 44% were white and ... 1% were other (Hispanic/Asian, etc.) During the time period studied we identified 80 instances in which we filed a death notice. In one case we were unable to identify the race of the defendant.

"Of the 79 remaining cases we filed a notice against a black defendant in 41 cases (52%). We filed against a white defendant in 36 cases (46%) and we filed against other defendants in two cases (2%)."

Look at that number 486 closely and you'll learn what the real disparity is. Baltimore County, in 20 years, has had fewer homicides than Baltimore City has had in the past two. The overwhelming majority of Baltimore City homicide victims are black. We should expect more white homicide victims in Baltimore County because more whites live there.

O'Connor's office files for the death penalty more frequently than Baltimore's state's attorney does. With an African-American annual body count that should stagger the imagination, Baltimore's state's attorneys -- and not just Patricia Jessamy because this reluctance goes back a ways -- routinely refuse to seek the death penalty. Adolf Eichmann couldn't get the death penalty here.

Here are a couple of suggestions for future studies that won't get done. Let's have a study of exactly why state's attorneys in Baltimore, where most of the black victims are, shy away from the death penalty.

Then -- in the interest of investigating a real racial disparity -- let's have a treatise on why black murderers choose white victims far more frequently than white murderers choose black ones.

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