Reforms recommended to reduce race disparity in death penalties Changes would be made within court system


A gubernatorial task force has recommended a series of legal reforms from mandatory "diversity training" of courtroom personnel to more broadly based jury pools to reduce the influence of racial discrimination in Maryland death penalty cases.

The committee was created in the summer to find out why a disproportionate share of people who end up on Maryland's death row are black and why convicts whose victims are white are disproportionately sentenced to death.

While the nine-member panel did not conclude that race was a factor in death penalty sentencing, it found the apparent racial disparity a "cause for concern" and suggested the system provides a "potential for prejudice."

"We couldn't say what causes this definitively," said Juvenile Justice Secretary Stuart O. Simms, the task force's chairman. "But we have recommended some reasonable steps that people can debate and consider that would, at least, improve the perception of a problem."

Mr. Simms noted that of the 17 men on Maryland's death row, 14 are black and three are white. Only six of their victims were black while 16 were white. None of the white inmates was convicted for harming a black person.

The task force recommended diversity training for judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, jurors and police. Drawing prospective jurors from driver's license records rather than voter rolls might also increase racial diversity in some juries, the report noted.

The report's other recommendations included:

Changing state law so that the Court of Appeals may consider whether the imposition of a death sentence was based on the race of a defendant or victim.

Giving defense lawyers the option of instructing juries that their decision should be made without regard to race of the defendant or victim.

Granting lawyers "limited" opportunity to ask prospective jurors questions to ensure that the race of the defendant or victim will not be improperly considered.

The report also recommended that homicide victims' families be allowed greater opportunity to provide information to the courts and that the issue of fairness in the imposition of capital punishment be further studied by the courts.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening said in a written statement that the task force's "major recommendations appear to be very reasonable." While he is a death penalty supporter, he said he wants to make certain that discrimination has "no role" in the process.

Most of the task force's recommendations will require no action from the governor or the General Assembly, Simms said. Rather, they are intended primarily as suggestions to the xTC decision-makers in the judicial system, he said.

But even some fellow task force members acknowledge that the report is not comprehensive and often reiterates concerns expressed in a similar 1993 study.

Nor do the current recommendations address one of the major culprits for the smaller number of death row inmates who have victimized blacks -- the fact that Baltimore prosecutors rarely seek the death penalty compared with prosecutors in other jurisdictions, particularly Baltimore County, which produces a disproportionate share of death row inmates.

"We found there is disparity, but we didn't really find out the reasons for the disparity," said Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., a Baltimore Democrat. "If we're going to propose changes without that research, I don't know that a lot will be accomplished."

Simms, who sought the death penalty only twice during his eight years as Baltimore's state's attorney, said the panel didn't want to "suggest anyone was at fault."

Task force member Decatur W. Trotter, a Prince George's Democratic state senator who lead efforts to create the panel, said he was satisfied that the task force had accomplished the most it could with limited resources.

"There's still no doubt in my mind that the way the death penalty is used is discriminatory," Trotter said. "We need to do everything we can to eliminate that, and we're finding it's a very difficult thing to do."

The task force also includes members from the legal community and the general public. Seven members are black.

Pub Date: 12/21/96

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad