Lt. governor to seek study of capital punishment

Steele says race disparity evident, but he is doubtful on return of moratorium

January 27, 2003|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele says he will push for another study of the state's use of capital punishment to try to find out why blacks who kill whites disproportionately end up on death row, as a recent statistical study indicates.

Steele said he would propose such a study to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. when the two hold a private meeting this week. "I would suspect that his heart would want to move forward on it," he said of the governor.

However, Ehrlich, who campaigned on lifting the death penalty moratorium once he took office, is unlikely to agree to reinstate the moratorium while such a study is conducted. Steele said yesterday that he was unsure whether he would even advocate such a policy.

Further review, however, is another matter, said Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver. "Simply because the moratorium has been lifted doesn't mean that studying the issue of racial disparity is over. ... Governor Ehrlich is relying on Lieutenant Governor Steele's input on racial bias or anything else to do with the death penalty," she said.

Steele decided additional study was needed after partially reading the recent statistical report written by a University of Maryland criminologist, which found that blacks who kill whites are 2 1/2 times more likely to be sentenced to death than are whites who kill whites and 3 1/2 times more likely than blacks who kill blacks. It also found that jurisdiction greatly affects a defendant's chances of ending up on death row.

Why isn't answered

The current population of Maryland's death row would appear to support the study's results: Of the 12 men awaiting execution, eight are black, and all were convicted of killing whites. Nine are from Baltimore County.

"The `duh' point is: There's racial disparity on death penalty sentencing," Steele said yesterday. "What the study doesn't say, is why. ... Are blacks committing the types of crimes that automatically get the death penalty? I don't think so, but that's how it appears."

"If the state is going to put itself in a position where it's going to mete out a life or death sentence, then we need to be armed with every piece of evidence and fully understand and appreciate the prosecution's decision-making process," Steele added.

He said the state could commission an independent entity to extensively interview prosecutors and police investigators to try to determine how they make their charging decisions.

"This is not to second guess our prosecutors, and I'm not talking about diminishing the seriousness of the crime or mitigating the pain of the victims," said Steele, a devout Roman Catholic who opposes the death penalty on religious grounds. Rather, he wants "an overall review of why blacks are seemingly disadvantaged when it comes to sentencing."

He likened the problem to that of stiffer sentences for possession of crack, largely an African-American scourge, than for cocaine, largely used by whites.

Despite Steele's personal beliefs, Ehrlich has asked him along with a yet-to-be-named panel to review each death-row case - a task the lieutenant governor has not begun.

The administration knows it must start soon, however; as early as today, a Baltimore County judge is expected to sign a death warrant establishing an execution date in mid-March for Steven H. Oken, a white man convicted of murdering three white women in 1987. And six more cases could arrive at Ehrlich's desk in the coming months.

`A step forward'

Del. Salima S. Marriott, a Baltimore Democrat, has sponsored legislation that would establish a commission (to include Steele) to analyze the study and make recommendations to the General Assembly while extending the moratorium for a few years. She said yesterday that Steele's comments were "a step forward in terms of this administration," and that her bill would accomplish the same thing Steele is after.

But Steele is not sure whether he will lobby Ehrlich to reinstate the moratorium, which effectively ended when Glendening left office Jan. 15. "Should the system come to a complete stop while we move forward with a further review of the problem? I don't know that it should," he said.

A death penalty supporter, Ehrlich has not commented on the findings of the university study, which was commissioned more than two years ago by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Ehrlich has asked several members of his staff, including Steele, to read it and report to him.

However, Ehrlich made clear during his campaign that he was predisposed not to entirely trust it. He has vowed to carefully review capital cases one by one, arguing that he can successfully screen for racial bias, prosecutorial misconduct or any other compelling reasons why a convict's life should be spared.

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