Death penalty study is reviewed

A 2 1/2 -year study of Maryland's use of the death penalty entered the political galaxy of Annapolis yesterday, where lawmakers quickly spun it to their own purposes.

The study, commissioned by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, has been awaited eagerly by politicians and advocates on both sides of the death penalty debate. The governor's moratorium on the death penalty was imposed in May to allow time for the study to be completed and digested.

Yesterday, that digestion began in earnest. The study's author, University of Maryland criminologist Raymond Paternoster, summed up his findings for members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and the House Judiciary Committee.

He told them that defendants who kill white people in death penalty-eligible cases are two to three times more likely to receive a death sentence than those who kill nonwhites, and that blacks killing whites is the racial combination most likely to lead to execution.

In addition, he said, venue matters. Those accused of death-eligible murders in Baltimore County are 23 time more likely to be sentenced to death than they are in Baltimore City; 18 times more likely than in Prince George's County, and 14 times more likely than in Montgomery County, for instance.

The disparities occur at the hands of prosecutors, who decide whether to seek capital murder charges, Paternoster said.

"So it's fair to say that this study confirms what we already know?" Sen. Leo E. Green, a Prince George's Democrat who opposes the capital punishment, asked Paternoster.

Bolstered by the study's findings, lawmakers have introduced bills in the House and Senate that would prolong the moratorium indefinitely.

But those who support the death penalty saw in the numbers justification for toughening the way Maryland prosecutors apply capital charges. "It just seems to me that if we're going to have a death penalty, it should be enforced," said Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican.

She and others noted repeatedly yesterday that in the state's most violent jurisdictions, Baltimore City and Prince George's County, prosecutors rarely seek the death penalty.

Jacobs said she plans to introduce legislation that would require prosecutors to press for capital charges in every death-eligible case.

Advocates outside Annapolis also offered varying interpretations yesterday.

"A long-awaited study ... shows that the death penalty is not used often enough in [Maryland], according to the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a public-interest legal law group which advocates victims' rights," one news release stated.

Another group, the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, announced a demonstration planned for Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s inauguration Wednesday. "Ehrlich has maintained his commitment to ending the moratorium despite evidence revealed from a two-year death penalty study that confirms deep racial disparities exist in who is sentenced to Maryland's death row," a statement read.

Ehrlich has declined to comment on the study, but has repeated his belief that the death penalty is administered fairly here.

Yesterday, Paternoster suggested several measures that could make the system more equitable: create uniform standards for prosecutors handling death-eligible cases; re-institute "proportionality review," whereby the Maryland Court of Appeals would compare each death sentence with punishments for similar crimes; and continuously monitor the system.

Sen. Ralph M. Hughes, a Baltimore Democrat, said he might introduce bills calling for some of those measures. He and Del. Salima S. Marriott, also a Baltimore Democrat, have filed emergency legislation to extend the moratorium in hopes of passing a bill before Ehrlich takes office.

But such swift passage is nearly impossible. At least six days are required to pass a bill unless two-thirds of lawmakers vote to waive the rules.

"That's not going to work," House Judiciary chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. said of Marriott's plan.

Vallario is unsure whether his committee will have the appetite to pass any death penalty legislation this year. The committee has 13 new members, some of whom are also new lawmakers.

Sun staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this article.