- The Washington Times - Friday, May 10, 2002

For more than a year, a University of Maryland researcher has worked quietly on an exhaustive review of capital punishment in the state to determine if death sentences are unfairly meted out to minorities and the poor.
Ray Paternoster's work was suddenly thrust into a spotlight yesterday when Gov. Parris N. Glendening declared a moratorium on executions until the study is completed and the General Assembly reviews it.
Advocates and officials on both sides of the death-penalty debate said the report's findings would likely have a considerable effect.
"I would expect the study will have a profound effect on the way the death penalty is looked at by anyone in the criminal justice field, legislators and the executive branch," said Katy C. O'Donnell, chief of capital defense division of the state public defender's office.
A criminologist at the university's College Park campus, Mr. Paternoster has enlisted the help of seven doctoral students to review all criminal cases between 1978 and now in which prosecutors could have sought the death penalty.
He is sifting through trial transcripts, police and autopsy reports, death certificates and other documents from about 6,000 cases. Researchers are looking at some 250 factors, including characteristics of victims, case evidence and how the crimes were committed.
By collecting such comprehensive data, Mr. Paternoster is trying to paint as complete a picture as possible of the criminals and their victims. He also hopes to determine what motivates prosecutors to pursue death sentences and juries to impose them.
Mr. Paternoster said his team was still in the record-gathering stage and hasn't analyzed the data. He expects to finish sometime in September.
"It's a big black box for now, even for me," he said yesterday.
Mr. Paternoster would not comment on the governor's decision to impose a moratorium while he completes his study.
There are currently 13 inmates on Maryland's death row. All are male, nine of them are black and four are white. One of the black inmates is Wesley Eugene Baker, 44, convicted of killing a white grandmother in Catonsville in 1991. His execution, scheduled for next week, was put on hold by the moratorium.
Mr. Glendening commissioned Mr. Paternoster's study in 2000 because of concerns that blacks were being unfairly singled out for death sentences since the state reinstated the death penalty in 1978.
Black lawmakers pushed the governor last year to wait until the study was finished before allowing any more executions. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a candidate for governor, also asked last week for a temporary moratorium.
In a similar study of capital punishment in South Carolina, Mr. Paternoster concluded that a key factor in death sentences there was the race of the victim.
That appears to hold true in Maryland as well, said University of Iowa law professor David Baldus, who presented a report to a key Maryland Senate committee when the state legislature considered a moratorium in 2001.
The Baldus study is not as comprehensive as Mr. Paternoster's it includes only 346 cases between 1978 and 1999 in which prosecutors filed notices that they would seek the death penalty, omitting death-eligible cases where a capital sentence was never pursued. The findings, however, were so clear that it is a likely indicator of what the larger study will show, Mr. Baldus said.
"When you see race effects of the kind you saw in this preliminary study, they tend to hold up," he said.
Mr. Baldus' study showed that black defendants with white victims were more likely to receive death notices than those who killed nonwhites.
"White-victim cases are treated more punitively than the black-victim cases. It is the black defendants with white victims who are more likely to get the death penalty," Mr. Baldus said.
That appears to be the case for Maryland's 13 death-row inmates as well. Of the inmates' 17 victims, 15 were white and 2 black. Eight of the inmates who killed whites are blacks, four who killed whites are whites, and one black inmate killed two blacks.
Geography is also a factor in Maryland, where each county decides whether to seek a death sentence in capital cases. Of Maryland's 13 death-row inmates, nine are from suburban Baltimore County, where State's Attorney Sandra O'Connor's policy is to file notices in all death-eligible cases.
Miss O'Connor uses the blanket policy to avoid any suggestion that bias affects death-penalty decisions, said Baltimore County prosecutor Ann Brobst.
Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler, who rarely presses for a death sentence, predicted that the study won't find any significant racial bias in Maryland. Mr. Gansler said geography is a much more important factor.
For example, he said, roughly 85 percent of all murders take place in Prince George's County and Baltimore city, with mostly black victims and perpetrators. Yet the death penalty is rarely used in those two jurisdictions.
"The tiny sample that we have on death row must be compared to the far greater numbers of people in Maryland who commit capital murder where the death penalty is never sought," Mr. Gansler said.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide