Death row disparity

December 02, 2005|By LISA GLADDEN

I am tired of watching African-American men continue to become tangled in Maryland's criminal justice system.

I am tired of their treatment and the myriad participants in the criminal justice system who provide "new and improved" cures for social ills. Without improved opportunities created by officials with a commitment to exceptional educational systems for all students, young men are easily lured by the glitz and glamour of a life of crime. Few men with decent jobs commit crimes, and even fewer college graduates wind up in jail.

In a city that frequently witnesses more than 250 murders a year, most of the victims are African-American. These murders of African-Americans are not punished with a death sentence. More than 400 African-Americans were murdered last year in Maryland. Not one of those murders was punished with a death sentence. Why not?

The application of Maryland's death penalty is racist.

The state is preparing to execute Wesley Eugene Baker, 47. Mr. Baker is a black man convicted of killing Jane Tyson, a white woman. The crime was committed in Baltimore County in 1991.

The plain facts about race are that blacks who kill whites are 2.5 times more likely to be sentenced to death than whites who kill whites and 3.5 times more likely than blacks who kill blacks, according to a study of Maryland's death penalty system by Raymond Paternoster of the University of Maryland.

In Maryland, nearly 80 percent of homicide victims in the past five years have been African-Americans. But all but one of the seven prisoners currently on Maryland's death row are there for killing a white person.

Maryland has executed four men since the death penalty was reinstituted in 1976. In all four cases, the victims were white. Is a white life really worth more than a black life? Appalling as that idea sounds, Maryland's capital punishment statute appears to play out that way.

The evidence of racial bias reflects all of the disparities that have run rampant through Maryland's juvenile justice system, in which a disproportionate number of minority children were regularly committed to institutions. This is the system that failed Mr. Baker 30 years ago.

He might never have been sentenced to death had his story been fully presented to the sentencing judge. He was born as the result of his mother's rape at age 12. An abusive, drug-addicted stepfather drove him to live on the streets by age 8. He rarely went to school, quickly became addicted to heroin and soon became yet another neglected and forgotten kid who fell through the cracks of Maryland's child welfare system.

Mr. Baker was sentenced when he was 10 years old to the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, the same facility that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said last summer should be closed. He said his goal was to "dismantle a broken system that suffered from a decade of neglect and replace it with a new, child-first culture centered on treatment and education."

Mr. Baker's memories of the Hickey School as described in his clemency petition reflect the 2004 U.S. Justice Department report that "revealed major constitutional deficiencies" in protecting boys there from staff and youth violence, unsafe restraint practices and other abuse.

The 51-page report based on a visit in 2003 details a "deeply disturbing degree of physical abuse of youth by staff." Youths at Hickey were slammed to the ground, choked, punched and kicked. These interactions were not, as one might hope, aberrations, but were "representative of recurrent problems."

Governor Ehrlich responded quickly and dramatically to the report. He has been a champion of juvenile justice - closing facilities when abuse or neglect is detected, increasing spending for the Department of Juvenile Services, even changing its name from the Department of Juvenile Justice to better reflect his commitment to helping youths rather than simply punishing them. At a time when other government agencies have shrunk, Mr. Ehrlich has increased the staff at DJS.

He has instructed all agency chiefs to establish "clear departmental policies that identify the elimination of race bias as a goal in ... mission, policies, procedures, practices, and programs." If he is truly concerned with race bias, he must pay attention to the discrepancies revealed in the application of Maryland's death penalty as much as he pays attention to the disgraceful history of Maryland's juvenile justice system.

Mr. Baker is a product of a bankrupt system in which youths were locked up, abused and discarded. Mr. Ehrlich has an opportunity to acknowledge and begin repairing the deep-seated injuries caused by this system. He can demonstrate his genuine commitment to creating a culture in which troubled youths are helped rather than thrown away by commuting this death sentence to life in prison.

Otherwise, Mr. Baker will become just one more example of a devastatingly failed system.

Lisa Gladden, a Democrat, represents District 41 in the Maryland Senate. Her e-mail is

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