Md study disparities
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Maryland study finds racial disparities in death penalty
By STEPHEN MANNING, Associated Press
COLLEGE PARK, Md. (January 7, 2:56 p.m. AST) - Prosecutors in Maryland are much more likely to seek the death penalty in cases where blacks are accused of killing whites, according to a University of Maryland study released Tuesday.
The report also concluded geography plays a major role in whether a defendant faces a potential death sentence, as the decisions by state's attorneys to pursue capital punishment varies widely from county to county.
Outgoing Gov. Parris Glendening commissioned the report in 2000 in response to concerns that the state's death penalty is unfairly meted out according to race and jurisdiction.
Glendening, a Democrat, imposed a moratorium on executions last May while the study was being completed, but Republican Gov.-elect Robert Ehrlich has promised to lift the ban when he takes office Jan. 15. Only one other state that has capital punishment, Illinois, has imposed a similar moratorium.
Maryland has 12 men on death row; eight are black and four are white. In all 12 cases, the victims were white. The state has executed three people, two of them black, since 1976.
Criminologist Ray Paternoster found that the race of the defendant was not significant in death penalty-eligible cases, but wrote that the race of the victim proved a major factor in determining whether prosecutors sought the death penalty.
Furthermore, the race of the victim and offender taken together showed significant differences. Prosecutors filed death notices, indicating their intent to seek the death penalty, in almost half of the homicides where a black defendant killed a white victim, but only in about a quarter of all other homicides.
"Black offenders who kill white victims are at greater risk of death sentences than others, primarily because they are substantially more likely to be charged by the state's attorney with a capital offense," the report said.
Paternoster studied 6,000 murder cases between 1978, when the state reinstated a death penalty statute, and the present. Paternoster sifted through police reports, case files, autopsy reports and other records. Researchers evaluated 250 factors, such as the racial characteristics of the victim and how the crimes were committed.
Decisions by prosecutors in the early stages of cases varied dramatically between jurisdictions. In Baltimore County, for example, State's Attorney Sandra O'Connor pursues the death penalty in all eligible cases to avoid any allegations of bias - even though the county had considerably fewer death-eligible cases than jurisdictions such as the city of Baltimore.
"The between-county differences that occur at the beginning of the process have effects that propagate the end of the process," the report concluded.
Maryland's death penalty could be a major issue in the General Assembly session that starts Wednesday.
Prosecutors want to strengthen the statute, saying the law is relatively weak compared to other states and was a reason Maryland lost the right to first prosecute Washington-area sniper suspects John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo.
Several black lawmakers have proposed legislation to extend the moratorium while the General Assembly reviews the study.
Ehrlich would not comment Tuesday morning on the study, saying he had not had a chance to review it. But he repeated his pledge to end the moratorium when he takes office, saying he will review death sentences on a case-by-case basis.
Death penalty opponents said the study should convince legislators to extend the moratorium while they debate the state's law.
"This gives us new proof that racial bias is a problem," said Jane Henderson, co-director of the Quixote Center, a Hyattsville-based Catholic organization that tracks death penalty cases.