The Value of Black Life in Maryland
In the eight years I served as governor of Maryland, I found the power to decide which condemned prisoners would live and which would die the most awesome and emotionally grueling of all my duties. I faced this decision four times.
I believed in the death penalty when I became governor and took seriously my constitutional responsibility to uphold Maryland law. I presided over two executions, those of Flint Gregory Hunt and Tyrone Gilliam. Both were black men whose victims were white. I heard from many civil rights leaders who rightly pointed out that this racial combination dominated cases on our state's death row, even though African Americans were and continue to be the victims in nearly 80 percent of homicides.
So in 1999 I commissioned a study of race and death sentencing from the University of Maryland, believing it my responsibility to ensure that justice was truly blind when applying this ultimate punishment.
A few months later I faced yet another execution of a black man with a white victim -- that of Eugene Colvin-el. I was not yet convinced that a moratorium on executions was necessary. But I was also not 100 percent certain of Colvin-el's guilt, so I commuted his death sentence to life without the possibility of parole.
The last execution I faced was that of Wesley Baker -- whom Maryland ultimately executed on Dec. 5. His was the fourth case to come before me in which an African American man was condemned to die for the murder of a white Marylander. And as with two of the three condemned men before him, he had been sentenced to die in Baltimore County.
I could not, in good conscience, go forward with another execution of a black man for killing a white person. I stayed Baker's execution in May 2002 and imposed a moratorium on all executions pending the results of the University of Maryland study.
Days before I left office in January 2003, the study was released. Examining the records of more than 1,300 death-penalty-eligible cases between 1978 and 1999, criminologist Raymond Paternoster concluded that both geographic and racial disparities existed.
Baltimore County was singled out as having a significantly higher rate of death sentences than other jurisdictions in the state. Murderers in Baltimore County were 26 times more likely to be sentenced to death than killers in Baltimore City and 14 times more likely than murderers in Montgomery County.
The significant racial disparities are troubling. Cases in which the victim was white were almost twice as likely to result in the death penalty as cases in which the victim was black, and blacks who killed whites were 2 1/2 times more likely to be sentenced to death than whites who killed whites.
These results lead to the unfortunate conclusion that we value white life more than black life. Intentional or not -- and I believe it is not -- this is an indefensible and untenable position for the state. Whether one supports or opposes the death penalty in principle, all reasonable people understand that before we exercise the ultimate sanction, we must be confident that the system is, at a minimum, fair and accurate.
The University of Maryland study received a great deal of attention and should have been a call to action for state leaders, but no solutions have been implemented. The General Assembly, despite conducting hearings on the issue, never passed legislation to deal with the inequalities highlighted in the study.
Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who lifted my moratorium on executions after assuming office despite acknowledging that race "plays a part all the way through the process," named Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele as the new administration's point man on the issue. The lieutenant governor promised to conduct an assessment of our state's death penalty. To date, he has not.
Despite being ignored by the current administration, issues raised by the study remain. Maryland still faces serious questions about the impact of race and geography in capital sentencing.
I implemented the moratorium to allow for the thorough and fair study of our death penalty system and to allow for action to be taken to prevent racial and geographic discrimination. The study was completed, but the corrective action was not. It is time for our state to honestly and openly consider these findings and to find constructive remedies. To carry out executions under this scenario is simply wrong.
The writer was governor of Maryland from 1995 to 2003.