`Jury' stacked on death penalty

March 26, 2008|By GREGORY KANE

On Monday, the House of Delegates passed a bill that would establish a Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment. The commission, which will have 19 members, is to issue a report by Dec. 15 of this year on at least seven recommendations.

Guess what's at the top of the list of recommendations? You'd be right if you guessed "racial disparities," and you'd have guessed that even if you had just beamed in from Planet Dimwit.

No. 2 on the list is "jurisdictional disparities." No. 3 is "socio-economic disparities," while "the risk of innocent people being executed" comes in at numero quatro. Let us all pause for a moment to ponder why "racial disparities" is at No. 1 while "the risk of innocent people being executed" is fourth on the list.

You would think that preventing the execution of an innocent person would be the No. 1 priority, wouldn't you? But you kind of figured that, in this state, our legislators - especially those in the unofficial Be Kind To Coldblooded Killers Caucus - would go for the black-folks-as-victims angle first. Don't get me wrong. I'm all for looking at racial disparities. If blacks are given the death penalty disproportionately, by all means let's look at that.

Oh, that's right. We already did. The Paternoster study, the gold standard for death penalty opponents, found that there was a jurisdictional disparity - Baltimore County sent more folks to death row than any other Maryland jurisdiction - but that county prosecutors sought the death penalty in every case where it applied, regardless of the race of the accused.

That only left the race of the victims, and it was there that death penalty opponents felt they had scored a coup de grace. "Aha!" they shouted. "There are more people on death row for killing white victims than black ones!"

In their zeal to prove a racial disparity, death penalty opponents forgot about that thing called felony murder, which is how killers end up on death row in the first place. Felony murder is a homicide committed along with another felony like, say, robbery, rape or kidnapping. Bureau of Justice stats for the years 1976-2005 show that whites were 54.7 percent of felony homicide victims (compared with 42.7 percent for blacks) while black offenders accounted for 59.3 percent of all felony murders, versus 39.1 percent for whites.

Perhaps more revealing is the data for "percent of all stranger homicides by racial composition of victims and offenders." For the years 1976-2005 in this category, blacks murdered whites at a rate three to four times that at which whites murdered blacks.

This, dear readers, is what's known as a racial disparity. It's a disparity that should be studied right along with the ones that will show if there is a disproportionate number of blacks on death row, or why murderers who kill white victims are more likely to end up on death row than those who kill black ones.

Let me see a quick show of hands of all you readers who really believe that the new commission will seriously study the racial disparity in felony murders and stranger murders. Anyone? Anyone?

I thought not.

According to a story in yesterday's edition of The Sun, supporters of the bill claim the commission will be unbiased. And, on paper at least, they might have a point. The bill requires that appointees to the commission should "reflect the broad diversity of views on capital punishment." Members are to include a representative of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association, a representative of the Maryland State Lodge Fraternal Order of Police, a corrections officer who works in a state prison, a former death row inmate who was found to be innocent and, the bill reads, "six representatives of the general public, to include at least three family members of a murder victim."

That's what it says on paper. Is Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, a Republican from District 29C in Calvert and St. Mary's counties, convinced that the panel will be unbiased?

"Absolutely not," he said in a telephone interview yesterday. "Can I count the ways? It's a 19-member commission. Twelve of them are appointed by the governor. The speaker of the House and the president of the Senate have two appointments, so you already have 14 of 19 members who are pro-repeal [of the death penalty]. This thing is staffed by the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention - a troubled agency, I might add."

Del. Chris Shank, a Republican who represents District 2B in Washington County and who serves on the House Judiciary Committee, called the commission "a stacked deck from start to finish." Shank also has the best quote about how "unbiased" this process is.

"The verdict is in," Shank said, "before the jury has even retired to the jury room for deliberations."

greg.kane@baltsun.com

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