Maryland lawmakers should limit the discretion of local prosecutors in death penalty cases and mandate further court review to address racial and geographic disparities in the capital punishment system, the author of a sweeping study recommended yesterday.
Raymond Paternoster, a University of Maryland criminologist, briefed two legislative committees on his report released Tuesday and found lawmakers sharply divided over how to interpret the results.
The study is an analysis of nearly 6,000 homicide cases in the state over two decades. It found that the race of the victim plays a major role in whether the death penalty is sought, with prosecutors far more likely to bring capital charges against black suspects accused of kiling white victims. Because practices by state's attorneys vary widely, a death sentence is 26 times as likely in Baltimore County as in Baltimore, the study said.
Death penalty proponents questioned Paternoster's methodology and said the problem is simply that prosecutors in predominantly black jurisdictions aren't tough enough in seeking the death sentence on behalf of black victims.
"I would think that civil rights leaders across the state would be up in arms," said state Sen. Nancy Jacobs (R-Harford). "It's unfair."
Death penalty opponents such as Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery) praised the report and its suggested legislation, such as requiring courts to review each case to see if capital punishment is being meted out proportionally.
"The dispute is not so much the facts but the interpretation of the facts," Frosh said.
Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has vowed to lift the state's moratorium on executions once he is sworn in Wednesday. The moratorium was imposed by outgoing Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) because of concerns about racial bias.
Some lawmakers are pushing to keep the moratorium in place with legislation, but an effort to get such a measure passed and on Glendening's desk before he leaves office next week appears doomed, according to key committee chairmen.
"It's not going to happen," said Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George's), who heads the House Judiciary Committee.
The death penalty is likely to be vigorously debated in the current 90-day session, and Vallario was less certain about which direction lawmakers may take. While some want to abolish capital punishment, others are pushing to apply it more broadly.