Maryland prosecutors are far more likely to seek the death penalty for black suspects charged with killing white victims, a racial disparity that mirrors national trends and raises questions about whether capital punishment is being administered fairly, University of Maryland researchers said yesterday.
An analysis of nearly 6,000 Maryland homicide cases over two decades, the most comprehensive examination of how the state applies capital punishment, also found a marked geographic disparity among the state's 24 jurisdictions.
Concerned about possible bias, outgoing Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) last May halted all executions pending the study's completion. Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has pledged to lift the moratorium regardless of the findings and to review cases on an individual basis.
The study's conclusions that race and location appear to greatly influence application of the death penalty are likely to renew the intense debate. Principal investigator Raymond Paternoster, a criminal justice professor, said yesterday that it would be premature to end the ban without first addressing the issues raised.
"The kind of disparities we're finding are systemic. They cannot be identified on a case-by-case analysis," Paternoster said.
Twelve men, eight of them black, are on Maryland's death row. In each case, the murder victim was white, and that specific factor strongly influenced a prosecutor's decision to pursue a capital case, the report suggests.
But the researchers went beyond cases in which defendants were sentenced to death. They looked at all cases eligible for capital punishment -- and at whether prosecutors chose to pursue those cases to trial or resolved them with plea agreements.
"Offenders who kill white victims, especially if the offender is black, are significantly and substantially more likely to be charged with a capital crime," the report states. The probability is "twice as high as when a black slays another black."
In at least nine states, researchers have found compelling statistical evidence that victims' race plays a major role when prosecutors decide whether to seek the death penalty or, less often, when judges and juries decide to impose it, said University of Iowa law professor David C. Baldus. Less rigorous studies in 10 other states also show disparities based on the victim's race, Baldus said.
In each of the states studied, killers of whites were more likely to be targeted for execution than killers of blacks, regardless of the circumstances of the crime.
The Maryland study has national significance because "it builds on this record," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. At this point, he said, "it's incumbent on someone -- the courts, the Congress, the president -- to say race plays a significant role and that should not be the case. Either we fix it, or we stop it."
In Maryland, geography proved as significant as race because of widely different practices by the state's attorneys in various jurisdictions. "Jurisdiction matters, it matters a great deal," Paternoster said.
In Baltimore County, for example, a death sentence was 26 times as likely as in Baltimore City and 14 times as likely as in Montgomery County, the study found.
Paternoster said the explanation for the disparities lies with state's attorneys, not juries, although he was careful not to impugn the prosecutors' motives.
"Let me be clear," he told a news conference. "It doesn't mean there is racial animus involved." Rather, he said, it illustrates how "the product of their action does result in racial disparity."
Nearly 6,000 homicides occurred in Maryland from 1978 through 1999 -- 1,311 of them potential capital cases. A death sentence was sought in 353 cases and was obtained nearly 20 percent of the time.
As part of the analysis, prison, court, prosecution, defense and police records were studied for detailed information about the crime and those involved. The researchers tried to control variables by considering 123 factors, such as whether the victim was bound or gagged or whether the perpetrator showed any remorse.
Ehrlich said yesterday that he would review Pasternoster's methodology and findings but reiterated that his administration would make determinations on a case-by-case basis. He said race would be one of many points considered, though he declined to specify how he would factor it in when deciding whether to stay an execution.
He announced that Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele would review death warrants that reach his desk. Steele, the first African American elected statewide in Maryland, opposes the death penalty.
In Baltimore County, which has sent more men to Maryland's death row than any other jurisdiction, Assistant State's Attorney Ann Brobst was skeptical of Paternoster's findings concerning race because of differences in policy and practice between jurisdictions.
The vast majority of black murder victims in the state die in Baltimore City and in Prince George's County, two jurisdictions where prosecutors rarely seek the death penalty because local juries are reluctant to impose it. But in Baltimore County, which has a much higher percentage of white murder victims, the policy is to seek the death penalty whenever legally possible.
"If you have one jurisdiction which seeks the death penalty in every eligible case and two massively larger jurisdictions that never do, ever, yet have the vast majority of African American victims -- well, you see the problem," Brobst said.
Still, others called on Ehrlich to respond to the study. In Annapolis, about a dozen lawmakers joined representatives of the Catholic Church and Amnesty International to urge him to continue the moratorium until the General Assembly can review the report.
"This is a matter of racial justice," said Del. Salima Siler Marriott (D-Baltimore). "If he does ignore the study, clearly he's sending us a message that he is discounting racial justice, no matter how many people he's including in his administration."
If Ehrlich lifts the moratorium, as many as seven men could be put to death during his first year in office. Four have exhausted their appeals and could be executed immediately; officials expect three others to reach that point this year.
Staff writer Jo Becker contributed to this report. Death Penalty Study A University of Maryland study of nearly 6,000 homicides commited from 1978 to 1999 found significant racial disparities in the application of the death penalty in Maryland. The report found geographical differences as well. - Black offenders who kill whites are twice as likely to get a death sentence as whites who kill whites. - Black offenders who kill whites are four times as likely to get a death sentence as blacks who kill blacks. - The probability of a death sentence in Baltimore County is... ...26 times as likely as in Baltimore City. ...14 times as likely as in Montgomery County. ... 7 times as likely as in Prince George's County. SOURCE: "An Empirical Analysis of Maryland's Death Sentencing System With Respect to the Influence of Race and Legal Jurisdiction," by Professor Raymond Paternoster, University of Maryland