Sentence in killings raises racial concerns anew


When Maryland Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat, heard about the sentencing decision in Douglas A. Starliper's Baltimore County murder trial, she was incensed. To her, the result fit an all-too-familiar pattern: Killers whose victims are black do not get the death penalty.

In this case, Starliper, a white man, was convicted of fatally shooting his two black friends, Douglas L. Hebron, 20, and Lavonne K. Hall, 19, in 2001. Although she acknowledged she did not know the facts of the case, Gladden felt sure that if the races were reversed, the defendant would have been sentenced to death.

"This case just screams death penalty to me," she said.

Gladden's reaction was the most forceful of nearly a dozen death-penalty opponents asked yesterday about the Starliper case.

Many said they agreed with the decision by Baltimore County Circuit Judge Dana M. Levitz to give the 23-year-old Starliper two life sentences, while others said they did not know enough about the case to critique his judgment. Most commended the judge's comments last week that a death sentence, along with its never-ending appeals, is devastating to victims' families -- one reason Levitz gave for sentencing Starliper as he did.

But all agreed that there is widespread disillusionment with the state's capital punishment law -- especially when it comes to race.

And that mistrust, they said, can make a decision such as the one in Starliper's case suspicious, even if the facts of the case indicate the judge's decision was justified.

Michael Stark, the Baltimore-Washington coordinator of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, said that he had not heard many people discussing the Starliper decision. In his opinion, he said, it was a case in which prosecutors probably should not have asked for the death penalty in the first place.

Still, he said, the outcome feels uncomfortable -- especially given a recent University of Maryland study indicating that killers with black victims are much less likely to go to death row than those with white victims.

"This case just kind of produced a knowing nod," Stark said. "Nobody's really surprised by it. It fits a pattern."

None of Maryland's 12 current death-row inmates -- nine of whom were sentenced in Baltimore County -- was convicted of killing black victims.

Starliper's case does not fit the study's analysis of racial bias, however. In the Maryland study, Professor Raymond Paternoster found that the racial disparity occurs when prosecutors decide whether to seek the death penalty. In this case, the Baltimore County state's attorney's office decided to seek a death sentence against the white man convicted of killing blacks.

Paternoster's study did not find racial bias in sentencing by judges or juries.

To some death-penalty advocates, that makes racially based complaints about the outcome in Starliper's case absurd.

"If there's anything you can say about Baltimore County, they go after the death penalty equally," said Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Republican from Cecil and Harford counties. "No matter who the victim is."

Jacobs said she might have sentenced Starliper to death in this case, but said she did not believe the judge's decision had anything to do with race.

Neither Hebron's nor Hall's family members could be reached for comment last night. During Starliper's trial, prosecutors said the families were comfortable with Levitz's judgment in sentencing Starliper.

In court, the judge outlined a number of reasons for not imposing a death sentence. In an interview the next day, he said race played no role in the sentencing. He said the victims and defendant "could be purple, could be green," and it would not have affected his decision.

But those opposed to the death penalty said they can't shake a feeling of uneasiness over the outcome -- even though most also say they do not criticize Levitz's reasoning.

"Black life is valued in the state of Maryland as being less than white life -- that's one of the major things that came out of the [University of Maryland] study," said Sen. Ralph M. Hughes, a Democrat from Baltimore. "It's a trend, and this decision is further evidence of the trend."

Hughes said the state needs to figure out the reasons for the disproportionate number of people on death row with white victims, which is one reason he has sponsored a bill asking for a moratorium on the death penalty.

That bill could come to a vote in the Senate this week.

As that vote nears, death-penalty opponents may refer to the Starliper case in their lobbying.

Gladden said yesterday afternoon that she was considering talking about the case at an anti-death-penalty rally last night.

"You got two black guys lying on the street dead," she said. "It's outrageous, outrageous that [Starliper] would get a double life sentence."

She said she couldn't say why Levitz's decision would be an example of bias when the university study showed there was scant bias in the sentencing phase.

"But, you know," she said. "It just doesn't jibe."

She echoed Hughes' call for a moratorium.

"It is abundantly clear that there are too many questions that need to be resolved before we impose the ultimate penalty on somebody," she said.

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