It's time that Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) ended his reticence and inaction on the death penalty.

Steele campaigned as a "new" Republican who believed in inclusion and who was committed to racial justice. He promoted his long-held opposition to capital punishment as being rooted in his religious and moral convictions.

Soon after his election, Steele said that he found the results of a 2003 study by University of Maryland criminologist Raymond Paternoster "personally troubling." That study revealed that African Americans who killed whites in Maryland were 21/2 times more likely to receive the death penalty than whites who killed whites and 31/2 times more likely to be sentenced to death than African Americans who killed African Americans.

The study further concluded that murderers in Baltimore County were 26 times more likely to be sentenced to death than killers in Baltimore and 14 times more likely than murderers in Montgomery County. Of the 10 people on Maryland's death row, eight were sentenced in Baltimore County, six are African American and all murdered whites.

These racial and jurisdictional disparities prompted Steele to say, "If we're going to have a death penalty, fine. But it's got to be fair and equitable in how you apply it. This is not an issue I'm running away from."

Steele then vowed to form a task force to find ways to correct the disparities in Maryland's capital punishment system, but so far, he has done little to fulfill that promise.

With Steven Oken's death by injection on June 17, Maryland has resumed executions, raising the stakes not only for those on death row but for all Marylanders. But Steele's press secretary now says that the lieutenant governor "will not talk about the death penalty, period."

Perhaps Steele is powerless to do much about Maryland's death penalty system, given Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s stance on the issue. But Ehrlich did give his blessings to the task force, and surely he wouldn't want to be known as the governor who did nothing to correct grievous and fundamental flaws and inequities in the state's criminal justice system.

Steele should convene his task force and lobby Ehrlich to change his views. At least then he would be remembered as a politician who courageously stood up for his convictions and delivered on his promises.

If, furthermore, as the current evidence strongly suggests, his task force concludes that the Maryland criminal justice system's flaws and disparities are too great to be fixed and the death penalty should be abolished, Steele's views will be vindicated, and he will be viewed as a visionary leader -- hardly a bad thing for an ambitious politician.

-- Chris Byrd

cfxbyrd@yahoo.com