By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
A high-profile panel examining capital punishment in Maryland began its work yesterday with a review of statistics suggesting racial and jurisdictional disparities in the application of the death penalty and dramatic testimony from the brother of the notorious Unabomber.
The panel's meeting in Annapolis was the first of several planned in coming months to draft a recommendation to Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and lawmakers on whether executions should continue in Maryland. The issue has been one of the most emotional and heavily debated in the state in recent years.
The commission's work comes at a time when Maryland has had an effective moratorium on the death penalty since the state's highest court ruled in December 2006 that procedures for lethal injection had not been properly adopted. O'Malley only recently directed his administration to begin the process of drafting new regulations, which are not expected to be issued before the commission completes its work.
Yesterday, University of Maryland criminologist Raymond Paternoster revisited for the panel the findings of a 2004 study that he said revealed "tremendous variability" among Maryland counties in their pursuit of the death penalty. Prosecutors in Baltimore County were about 13 times more likely to pursue the death penalty as those in the city of Baltimore, about five times more likely as those in Montgomery County and twice as likely as prosecutors in Prince George's County, the study found.
The findings also suggested less pronounced disparities when the race of the victim was taken into account, with prosecutors more likely to seek the death penalty when whites were killed by blacks.
Paternoster's study grew out of a previous moratorium on capital punishment in the state imposed by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D). Since the findings were released, the state has executed two death-row inmates, both during the tenure of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). But the study has generated renewed interest since the election of O'Malley, who opposes the death penalty and tapped former U.S. attorney general Benjamin R. Civiletti to lead the panel.
In addition to several well-known opponents of capital punishment, including an exonerated death-row inmate, members of the panel also include law-enforcement officials and relatives of victims with more favorable views of the death penalty.
Some of those panel members noted that the findings of Paternoster and other experts did not reflect the fact that prosecutors in Maryland are elected and might respond to the will of their constituents or to the wishes of victims' families regarding capital punishment.
The most gripping testimony yesterday was offered by David Kaczynski, brother of the Unabomber, and Bill Babbitt, whose brother also was a convicted killer. Both men turned in their brothers to law enforcement officials.
Kaczynski contrasted the case of his brother, Theodore J. Kaczynski, a Harvard-educated serial killer whose life was spared in a plea deal, with that of Babbitt's brother, Manny Babbitt, a paranoid schizophrenic Vietnam veteran who was executed for his crime.
"The death penalty compounds the tragedy of murder by harming another set of families," Babbitt said. "Please consider that harm when you consider the role of the death penalty in Maryland."