MARYLAND IS poised to execute its first condemned inmate since 1998. Then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) imposed a moratorium on executions in 2002; Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) lifted that moratorium upon taking office the next year. The guilt of the man who is set to die next week, Steven H. Oken, is not in question, and the issues he is raising in last-minute pleas -- argued yesterday before Maryland's highest court -- seem insubstantial. But it would be wrong for Mr. Ehrlich to allow Mr. Oken's execution to proceed.
Maryland's capital punishment regime is far from the country's worst. The state has executed only three people since reinstating the death penalty, which has never become a routine feature of the state's criminal justice apparatus. But the regime is afflicted by gross racial and geographic disparities. The point of the moratorium was to allow these disparities to be studied. University of Maryland criminologist Raymond Paternoster, who analyzed the system at the state's request, found early last year: "Offenders who slay white victims are significantly more likely to be sentenced to death than those who slay all non-white victims." When the race of the perpetrator is considered, the effect grows more dramatic: Correcting for other factors, "blacks who kill whites are two and one-half times more likely to be sentenced to death than are whites who kill whites . . . three and one-half times more likely than are blacks who kill blacks, . . . and almost eleven times more likely . . . than 'other' racial combinations." The geographical disparities are marked as well. Prosecutors in Baltimore County are 13 times as likely as those in Baltimore City to seek the death penalty in a comparable murder case, for example.
We oppose the death penalty, but a core concern for those states committed to it should be ensuring that its application is not burdened by racial politics or the enthusiasms of local prosecutors. Mr. Ehrlich's willingness to allow executions to resume in the face of such powerful evidence that capital justice is not blind in Maryland sends a message that he does not share such a concern.