Last week a study of Maryland's death penalty confirmed what has long been suspected: This final, irrevocable penalty is applied in a racist and geographically arbitrary way [front page, Jan. 8]. Yet despite these findings, Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has reaffirmed his pledge to overturn Maryland's moratorium on executions, a promise that sets the stage for seven possible executions in 2003. That would be the largest number of executions in one year in Maryland history.
Twelve out of 12 people on Maryland's death row were convicted of killing whites in a state in which blacks account for about 80 percent of the murder victims each year. The study found that "blacks who kill whites are 21/2 times more likely to be sentenced to death than are whites who kill whites, 31/2 times more likely than are blacks who kill blacks and almost 11 times more likely to be sentenced to death than 'other' racial combinations."
Blacks have accounted for 77 percent of all executions in Maryland since 1923 (when Maryland started keep track of such things). Blacks also have accounted for 88 percent of those executed who were younger than 25.
What's more, not a shred of credible evidence suggests that the death penalty prevents crime -- not in Maryland or anywhere else in the country. Since 1982 Texas has led the nation in executions, yet its crime rate has soared past the national average.
We know what deters crime: good jobs and schools, decent housing and effective social programs. We also can say with certainty that as Maryland's economy continues to falter, crime will go up, because in most cases, crimes are committed against poor people by other poor and desperate people. We shouldn't be fooled by death penalty supporters who enthusiastically extol executions as the solution to crime. Only if an administration deals with poverty does it deal with crime.
While Ehrlich ponders the reinstatement of the death penalty, he should recall the story of Kirk Bloodsworth, who was sent to Maryland's death row in 1984. Bloodsworth was exonerated of wrongdoing and freed only because a bureaucratic oversight prevented the destruction of all the evidence in his case. It wasn't the effective workings of our legal system that freed Bloodsworth but the discovery of DNA evidence that proved his innocence.
But DNA cases are easy. What about cases in which no DNA evidence exists?
Eugene Colvin-El was taken off death row in the days before his scheduled execution because Gov. Parris N. Glendening couldn't be certain of his guilt. The U.S. Supreme Court also is examining claims of innocence and inadequate representation by Kevin Wiggins. Ehrlich should give some thought to these cases too.
Last year a Columbia University study singled out Baltimore County, which accounts for nine of the 12 men on death row, as having the second-highest rate of death penalty convictions among large counties -- and a 100 percent reversal rate in such convictions between 1973 and 1995. Those statistics do not point to a fair system.
The death penalty consumes the time and money of courts, prisons and state officials. It is divisive and unjustified. It isn't justice -- it's a lottery.
The findings of the $250,000 University of Maryland death penalty study present the state with an opportunity to address critical questions about capital punishment. At the very least, the incoming governor should allow the General Assembly to debate this issue in a democratic and open manner before he resumes executions.
-- Michael Stark
is the area coordinator of the
Campaign to End the Death Penalty.