Md.'s highest court refuses to hear race-based death penalty appeal


Maryland's highest court refused this week to hear an appeal by a death row inmate who is challenging his sentence based on the findings of a University of Maryland study that suggested race and where a murder is committed play a role in the state's use of its death penalty statute.

But Tuesday's decision by a majority of judges on the Court of Appeals will not end Wesley Eugene Baker's attempts to argue that his death sentence was racially and geographically influenced, according to one of his lawyers.

Baker's lawyers had previously filed a notice of appeal on the same subject using a different court procedure in the hopes of convincing the high court that their client should at least be afforded an evidentiary hearing on the issue, said Gary W. Christopher, a federal public defender who represents Baker.

A Harford County judge did not conduct a hearing before denying Baker's newest death penalty arguments.

Professor's work noted

Baker, 46, had asked a Harford Circuit Court judge to vacate his death sentence and impose a life term based on the findings of University of Maryland professor Raymond Paternoster and the testimony of others who could "confirm that race [and racially influenced geography] has operated as a pervasive influence in the death penalty process," according to court filings.

But in November, Judge Maurice W. Baldwin Jr. denied Baker's requests - setting up the pair of appeals.

Paternoster's study found that black defendants who killed white people were statistically most likely to be charged with capital murder and sentenced to death in Maryland. Black defendants whose victims were white were 2 1/2 times more likely to be sentenced to death than white defendants with white victims, according to the study.

Baker is black; his victim, Jane Tyson, 49, was white.

Paternoster also pointed to geographic considerations in how the death penalty is applied, noting that offenders who commit murder in Baltimore County are more likely to be charged with capital murder than defendants who commit crimes in other jurisdictions.

Baker was convicted in 1992 of fatally shooting Tyson in the parking lot at Westview Mall in Catonsville. His case was transferred to Harford County after he requested a change in venue.

Other death penalty cases that note the Paternoster study are awaiting Circuit Court hearings.

'It's disappointing'

"I think it's disappointing that the Court of Appeals didn't take this opportunity to hear an issue of such importance," said William Kanwisher, who is using the study to try to persuade a Prince George's County judge to throw out the death sentence of his client, Heath William Burch.

Chief Judge Robert M. Bell and Judge Clayton Greene Jr. disagreed with the majority in this week's decision, saying they would have heard the case. Bell and Greene are the only black judges on the court.

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