Racial factor found in Md. capital cases

Sun Staff

Defendants who kill white people in Maryland are significantly more likely to be charged with capital murder and sentenced to death than are killers of nonwhites, according to a comprehensive study of the state's death penalty that was released yesterday.

The study also found that jurisdiction matters a great deal in Maryland. The likelihood that prosecutors will seek capital murder charges in Baltimore County, for instance, is 13 times greater than in Baltimore, even when other factors such as the circumstances of the crime and a county's racial makeup are taken into account.

Statistically, the deadliest combination for defendants is to be a black offender accused of killing a white victim, the study says. Inmates on Maryland's death row bear out the findings: Of the 12 men awaiting execution, eight are black, nine are from Baltimore County, and all were convicted of killing white people.

"There are systemic disparities in our handling of the death penalty," said Raymond Paternoster, a University of Maryland criminologist who spent 2 1/2 years gathering and analyzing data. He and a team of researchers ran the numbers through myriad statistical models to try to rule out factors that could skew their findings of racial and geographic discrepancies, he said.

"I had these effects," he said. "I threw the kitchen sink at them, and I couldn't get them to go away."

The $225,000 study was commissioned by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and paid for by the state. It has become the central component of Maryland's debate over a death penalty moratorium. By yesterday afternoon, death penalty opponents and some criminal justice experts had hailed it as the first hard evidence of what they have suspected all along.

"I think that the results are deeply disturbing," said Katy O'Donnell, chief of the capital defense division of the Office of the Public Defender. "They appear to validate our worst concerns. ... This says the very prosecution of a case as a capital case is not based upon the facts but upon where the crime was committed and color of the victim's skin."

O'Donnell and Michael A. Millemann, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law who specializes in constitutional and death penalty issues, agree that the study could become the basis for death row inmates to appeal their convictions to the Maryland Court of Appeals.

Del. Salima S. Marriott, one of the General Assembly's most outspoken death penalty opponents, said yesterday that she will introduce emergency legislation today to extend the moratorium indefinitely, in defiance of Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s intention to lift the moratorium when he takes office Jan. 15.

Such a legislative feat would be nearly impossible without the enthusiastic backing of the House and Senate presiding officers and the chairmen of the committees that would hear the legislation. Marriott said yesterday that she has received no commitments from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, an opponent of the moratorium, or incoming House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who voted for the moratorium in 2001.

Some prosecutors defended yesterday their use of the death penalty, saying the racial statistics were skewed by Prince George's County and Baltimore, majority-black jurisdictions where most of the state's murders occur, but where death penalty cases are almost never tried. By contrast, Baltimore County and Harford County are majority-white, and prosecutors there regularly file capital murder charges.

'Racially neutral'

"We knew going into the study that our policy was racially neutral, and the statistics back us up," said Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor, whose office seeks capital murder charges in every eligible case. "We don't look at the race of the victim; we don't look at the race of the defendant. That has been in our policy for 20 years and will continue to be."

O'Connor and Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas Gansler said the study did show jurisdictional variations, but they said that was to be expected because prosecutorial discretion is integral to the system.

As four death warrants were inching toward his desk for review, Glendening reversed his position on the moratorium and declared in May that he would not approve any executions before the next legislature had a chance to consider the study. Proponents of bills calling for a moratorium also argued that the study was vital.

Yesterday, Ehrlich repeated his intention to lift the moratorium, which he considers politically motivated and unnecessary.

He believes racial disparities exist but said there are circumstances that warrant the death penalty, such as the sniper shootings and the rash of shootings in Baltimore over the weekend.

"The ultimate sanction can deter crime," Ehrlich said. "It's a serious subject. It's a subject we take seriously. Race plays a part all the way through the process."

Ehrlich has said in the past that he will review each death warrant and can effectively screen for problems that way.

Paternoster said such a review might find prosecutorial misconduct, for instance, but could not address the systemic ills his study found. "There's other kinds of mischief going on that we can't identify on a case-by-case basis," he said.

6,000 cases studied

Paternoster's is the fourth study conducted on Maryland's death penalty since it was reinstated in 1978 and is by far the most comprehensive. He began by looking at nearly 6,000 first- and second-degree murder cases from 1978 to 1999. He whittled those down to 1,311 cases eligible for the death penalty.

He then examined the facts of each case, including the defendant's criminal record and personal history, and determined whether capital charged were filed, whether they were later dropped and the outcome of each case. Of the 1,311 cases, 76 resulted in a death sentence.

Although results "found no evidence that the race of the defendant matters in the processing of capital cases in the state," the study says, the numbers show that the probability that someone accused of killing a white person will be charged with capital murder is 1.6 times higher than the probability for a black-victim homicide.

When racial factors are combined, black defendants accused of killing whites were found to be more likely to get death sentences than anyone else.

"Blacks who kill whites are two and one-half times more likely to be sentenced to death than are whites who kill whites, three and one-half times more likely than are blacks who kill blacks, and almost 11 times more likely to be sentenced to death than 'other' racial combinations," the study says.

The study's geographic findings were even more striking, Paternoster said. Prosecutors in Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties and in Baltimore are significantly less likely to press for capital murder charges, while those in Baltimore County are much more likely to do so. The charges are least likely to be withdrawn by prosecutors in Prince George's County.

The variation, the study says, "cannot be explained by the kinds of homicides committed in these jurisdictions."

The disparities occur at the hands of the prosecutors in the earliest stages of a case and are not corrected as the case moves along in the system, Paternoster said. He did not ascribe any motive, noting, for example, that prosecutors might be responding to the wishes of victims' families. Polls have found whites to be far more supportive than blacks of the death penalty.

The Maryland Poll conducted for The Sun and released today found that 45 percent of state voters favor a death penalty moratorium and that 46 percent oppose it.

'A big split'

The issue "has potential to become hugely polarizing," said Keith Haller of Potomac Survery Research, which conducted the poll. "There's a big split between African-Americans and whites."

Paternoster offered no solutions, political or otherwise. "I think this report should be read carefully," he said. "I'll leave it at that."

Sun staff writers Michael Dresser and Ivan Penn contributed to this article.

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