Reprieve and review

February 08, 2006

The life of convicted murderer Vernon Lee Evans Jr. has been spared for now, but the impact of the reprieve granted him could extend beyond one man, one life. In agreeing to hear Mr. Evans' challenge to the state's death penalty, the Maryland Court of Appeals should put to rest claims that the system is biased and its execution method unlawfully cruel.

While we oppose capital punishment, it is the law in Maryland. The integrity of the system, however, has been suspect ever since a state-sponsored study raised concerns in 2003 about its application. University of Maryland researcher Raymond Paternoster's review of death penalty cases illustrated a disturbing reality: Where a crime is committed determines the likelihood of a defendant facing the death penalty. It also found that black defendants who killed white victims were most likely to face the death penalty. The Evans case falls into both categories. Mr. Evans, who is black, was convicted in the contract slaying of two white motel workers in Baltimore County, where prosecutors seek the death penalty in nearly every eligible case.

The court can't continue to duck the fundamental questions raised by the Paternoster study. Defendant after defendant has cited it to challenge the death penalty. Lawyers for Wesley Eugene Baker, convicted in the 1991 robbery and murder of a Baltimore County grandmother, tried repeatedly to get his appeal on alleged bias heard. The public deserves clarity from a court that just two months ago denied Mr. Baker's claim once again; he was executed Dec. 5.

Several other death row inmates are relying on arguments similar to Mr. Evans' to challenge their sentences, including the relevance of a convicted criminal's abusive childhood.

The Court of Appeals also will review the state's use of lethal injection in executions. The method has been challenged on the mix of drugs used, the pain it can inflict and the lack of public notice given on the procedure.

The finality of the death penalty argues - demands - that the system be equitable and just. Maryland's top court has a chance now to settle the outstanding doubts about the system's fairness.

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