Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele says he is troubled by new evidence of racial bias in Maryland's capital murder system and will advise Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to seek a new study of the issue, even as Maryland prepares for its first execution in more than four years.
Steele, the first African American elected statewide in Maryland and a personal opponent of the death penalty, said his concerns arose from a new University of Maryland study that shows black killers of white victims are nearly four times as likely to be sentenced to die than blacks who kill blacks. Ehrlich has named Steele his point person on capital punishment.
"This report demonstrates the necessity for a closer look at how we handle these cases, from the moment an individual is captured to the moment he is sentenced," Steele said in an interview last week. "I haven't discussed it yet with the governor, but maybe we should commission another study that looks at how our prosecutors prosecute capital crimes."
Steele's comments represent the new Republican administration's first substantial response to the study released Jan. 7 by University of Maryland criminologist Raymond Paternoster.
In a brief interview Friday, Ehrlich did not directly address Steele's remarks and played down the study's significance. He said he asked Steele and top aides, including chief lobbyist Kenneth Masters, to read it and report back to him.
Steele said that he finds the study's conclusions "personally troubling" and that Ehrlich has indicated that he, too, is "bothered by it."
When Ehrlich took office this month, he said he would allow executions to resume in Maryland after a moratorium imposed last year by former governor Parris N. Glendening (D). With a Baltimore County judge expected this week to schedule the first execution in Ehrlich's term as governor, Masters said, "It's an issue we're going to have to confront."
Prosecutors say there could be as many as seven executions this year, a record since the death penalty was reinstated in Maryland in 1978.
The Paternoster study was commissioned by Glendening, who halted executions in May pending its completion, making Maryland the second state to declare a moratorium. In Illinois this month, before leaving office, Gov. George Ryan (R) emptied death row because of persistent questions about the fairness of capital punishment.
Glendening cited concerns about racial bias and about the dramatically different policies among local prosecutors that had made the death penalty a "lottery of jurisdiction."
Of 12 men on death row in Maryland, eight are black, four are white and all killed white victims. Nine of the 12 were convicted of crimes committed in Baltimore County.
In an analysis of each of 6,000 murders committed in Maryland from 1978 to 1999, Paternoster found statistical evidence that the race of the victim plays a significant role when prosecutors decide whether to seek the death penalty, a finding that mirrors studies in 19 other states.
Paternoster also found overwhelming evidence that a killer's chances of being sent to death row depend heavily on the location of the slaying. A killer who commits his crime in Baltimore County is 26 times more likely to receive the death penalty than one in neighboring Baltimore City and 14 times more likely than in Montgomery County, the study shows.
Ehrlich, Maryland's first Republican governor in more than three decades, said he would rescind the moratorium regardless of the study's findings and evaluate each capital case individually.
Baltimore County prosecutors last week asked a judge to sign a death warrant ordering the execution of Steven H. Oken in mid-March.
Ehrlich has the authority to stay the execution, and Oken's attorney's are likely to ask him to do so. Ehrlich said he has begun to gather information about Oken, a white man who raped and killed three white women over 16 days in 1987 in an alcohol- and tranquilizer-fueled rampage so savage that his attorney called it "a script for a horror movie."
"The facts are particularly egregious," Ehrlich said. "I find it just a little bit disquieting that there's been relatively little analysis of the lives cut short, the views of the victims and their families, which we view as also important."
Unlike Glendening, Ehrlich said he is not concerned about the overall fairness of a system in which prosecutors in some jurisdictions rarely seek the death penalty while prosecutors elsewhere, particularly in Baltimore County, seek it in every eligible case.
"One element I reject out of hand is that there shouldn't be discretion in the system," Ehrlich said. "The state's attorneys all run on different [campaign] platforms. Their views are approved by a majority of voters in their communities. You would expect different results in different jurisdictions, and that's what you get."
Ehrlich, who aggressively courted African American voters during his gubernatorial campaign, declined to comment on Paternoster's findings of racial bias. He said he and Steele will review every death warrant, and "if I'm not comfortable with any aspect of the case, we won't go forward."
Masters said that the administration clearly must respond to the study but indicated that Ehrlich has yet to decide what form that response would take.
Steele's idea for a second study won praise from a Democratic lawmaker who has played a leading role in challenging the fairness of the death penalty. Del. Salima Siler Marriott (Baltimore) said she is drafting legislation to create a panel, with Steele as chairman, to review the Paternoster study and propose ways to change state law.
"It is not responsible to ignore this study, but it didn't come with any recommendations," Marriott said. "I think the idea of a commission is the perfect way to go."
Steele, a Roman Catholic, is bracing for his first up-close experience with the death penalty, which he fervently opposes on religious grounds. Regardless of how Ehrlich proceeds, Steele said, he intends to serve as an advocate for mercy.
"I feel it is important to relay to the governor and respond to the question of: Should we do this? What is to be gained beyond providing satisfaction to someone who wants to see this individual die?" Steele said.
"There may be a case that comes across his desk where the evidence and the facts and the situation compel him to let this person live, despite his belief in capital punishment," Steele said. "Likewise, despite my fervent belief in life, I'm not for the death penalty -- there may be a case that comes across my desk that's so egregious, so heinous, so beyond the pale that the course of action taken by the state to bring about justice is appropriate.
"That's one where I'll spend time with my priest, I'm sure," he said.