Maryland's highest court denied a condemned man's bid yesterday for a hearing to show that his sentence was rendered illegal by racial and other inequalities that his attorneys, citing a state-sponsored study, argue are pervasive in the application of the state's death penalty law.
The ruling by the Court of Appeals, rejecting the request by Wesley E. Baker, turned on a question of procedure, Baker's attorney and legal experts said. The unanimous decision left unclear whether the court intends to address issues raised nearly three years ago when University of Maryland researchers announced that they had found disparities, by race and location, in the state's death penalty process.
The researchers, led by criminal justice professor Raymond Paternoster, found that prosecutors were far more likely to seek the death penalty for black suspects charged with killing white victims, as Baker was in Baltimore County in 1991. The study, commissioned by Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) in 2000, fueled efforts to impose a moratorium on executions and to push anti-death penalty measures in legislature, none of which passed.
"Once again we have another branch of government sort of refusing to comment on the merits of the study," said Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions. "Who's going to deal with it? The legislature hasn't addressed it, the governor hasn't addressed it and now the court has refused."
Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr., writing for the court, said that the defense's claims could not be presented in the manner in which Baker's attorneys had sought to put them before the court.
The attorneys had presented the issues in a motion to correct an illegal sentence. The court ruled that the sentence was not illegal, but the decision did not rule out the possibility that the court might reconsider the claims if they were presented in a different form.
Lawyers familiar with the case did not agree on what Harrell might have signaled about the court's intentions should the issues be argued again.
Baker attorney Gary W. Christopher noted that oral arguments focused on the merits of the claims, not on their procedural aspects, and said that he believed the court remains "very seriously concerned and interested" in the issues. "The court has now given us a roadmap" for how to present the claims properly, he said, "and we'll certainly follow that roadmap."
Prosecutors in the case weren't available to be interviewed. Stephen Bailey, deputy state's attorney in Baltimore County, said "the language of the opinion as a whole was very favorable to the state." He pointed to a footnote in which Harrell, after writing that the Baker case did not require the court to say whether a statistical study could demonstrate error in a specific case, cited a 1987 ruling in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that such analyses were insufficient to show that an individual case was prosecuted unfairly.
"I don't think any fair-minded person who looked at the facts with Baker would conclude that the decision to seek the death penalty was based on race," Bailey said.
Baker was convicted in 1992 of murdering Jane Tyson during a robbery in the parking lot of a Catonsville mall. According to trial testimony, Baker approached Tyson and her two grandchildren, pressed a gun to the left side of her head and squeezed the trigger.
He was within days of his scheduled execution in 2002 when Glendening stayed the death sentence. The governor ordered a moratorium on executions to give Paternoster time to complete his analysis of the prosecutions of 6,000 homicides committed in Maryland from 1978 through 1999.
Glendening's successor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), lifted the moratorium. Paternoster, in announcing his findings, said the explanation for the disparities rested with state's attorneys, not juries, although he was careful not to impugn the prosecutors' motives. He said that his analysis "doesn't mean there is racial animus" by prosecutors but rather that "the product of their action does result in racial disparity."