WHEN MARYLAND put Wesley E. Baker to death last week, it highlighted just about all the disparities that afflict its use of capital punishment. Mr. Baker was an African American man who killed a white person in Baltimore County. Blacks who kill whites are substantially more likely to receive the death penalty in Maryland than are whites who kill blacks, and Baltimore County prosecutors are dramatically more likely to seek it than are their counterparts elsewhere. While Mr. Baker committed a horrible crime, his execution nonetheless poses the question of whether the justice system would have demanded his life had he or his victim looked different or had the crime taken place somewhere else.
Such disparities used to bother Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) -- and presumably still do. Mr. Steele, now running for U.S. senator, opposes the death penalty. Nearly three years ago, when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) lifted his predecessor's moratorium on executions -- disregarding a University of Mary- land study that clarified just how unevenly the state's death penalty is applied -- Mr. Steele expressed concern. Mr. Ehrlich asked him to study the issue further and make recommendations.
Yet even as Maryland has resumed executions, Mr. Steele's long-awaited study has not materialized. While he has reportedly met with people to discuss the subject, there has been no formal task force -- something the governor's office says neither Mr. Ehrlich nor Mr. Steele ever envisioned. A spokesman for the governor, Henry P. Fawell, says Mr. Steele has met with a variety of interested parties and expects to make his much-delayed recommendations in the first few months of the new year.
Maryland's use of the death penalty is relatively rare. Yet partly because it is used so infrequently, its disparities can become particularly pronounced. Reserving the death penalty for the worst of the worst is better than profligate executions. But capital punishment cannot be reserved for black killers of white people in Baltimore County.
As an opponent of capital punishment in an administration that has dismissed such concerns, there is undoubtedly a limit to Mr. Steele's influence. Yet burying the issue for three years is not a sign of political courage.