Extend the moratorium

February 10, 2003

With a two-year study exposing deeply troubling problems in Maryland's death sentencing process, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. nevertheless insists on lifting a moratorium on executions.

It's hard to imagine a more cavalier decision. How can a governor ignore the findings of a study by reputable experts - without even questioning its validity?

To proceed with the taking of life in the face of so many questions is shocking. The matter is even more troubling because Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele has embarked, with the governor's approval, on another inquiry - this one designed to find remedies for the problems found in the sentencing study.

The right thing to do is crystal clear. It transcends politics, campaign pledges and personalities: The moratorium must remain in place until all the questions have been answered. At stake is nothing less than the system's integrity - and public confidence in that system.

University of Maryland criminologist Raymond Paternoster concluded in his examination of 6,000 cases that blacks who killed whites in death-penalty-eligible cases were two or three times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who killed nonwhites. Venue also mattered in the cases he examined: Baltimore County prosecutors always sought the death penalty when possible; Baltimore's prosecutors rarely did.

Governor Ehrlich has a careful study in hand. Its author has made considered and reasonable recommendations, including uniform standards for prosecutors handling death-eligible cases. Identifying practical ways to improve the system, as Mr. Steele proposes to do, seems a logical next step.

So this is not the time to resume executions. It is not at all reassuring that the governor promises to personally review every death penalty conviction: Examining the cases does not address or resolve the systemic flaws that have resulted in the imbalances identified by the study. By law, the governor already reviews death penalty cases - and surely Mr. Ehrlich would be able to do so with more confidence if he knew that the problems had been corrected.

It's a matter of principle: Whether some or all of death row's current residents are guilty of horrors is not the question on the table. The question is whether it is right to impose the ultimate judgment in the face of clear evidence that the system is broken.

Surely the new findings of racial and geographic disparities must be addressed before anyone else is put to death. It's simply wrong and incongruous for the state to go on executing people when its own study shows its system is flawed.

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