Some black lawmakers planned to introduce bills Wednesday that would extend the moratorium. "This gives us new proof that racial bias is a problem," said Jane Henderson, co-director of the Quixote Center, a Hyattsville-based Catholic organization that tracks death penalty cases.
The report by University of Maryland criminologist Ray Paternoster was commissioned by Gov. Parris Glendening in 2000 to determine if death sentences were given out unfairly based on race and geography.
Glendening imposed the moratorium on executions last May while the study was being completed, but Republican Gov.-elect Robert Ehrlich has promised to lift the ban when he takes office next week. He said he will review death sentences on a case-by-case basis.
Ehrlich would not comment on the study, saying he had not had a chance to review it. Only one other state that has capital punishment, Illinois, has imposed a similar moratorium. Lifting the execution ban could clear the way for up to seven executions in the coming year as more than half of Maryland's 12 death row inmates have nearly exhausted their appeals.
Maryland has executed only three men since the death penalty statute was reinstated in 1978. Paternoster studied 1,311 homicides between 1978 and 1999 that were eligible for the death penalty, reviewing 250 factors such as racial characteristics of the victim and how the crimes were committed.
His research team looked at four stages of death penalty cases, including the initial decision by prosecutors to seek a death sentence and the eventual sentence given by a jury or judge. Prosecutors, not juries or judges, played the most important role in determining death sentences, the report found. Most of the racial and county disparities came when prosecutors decided to seek a death penalty early in a case, not during the sentencing phase of a trial.
Paternoster found that the race of the defendant was not significant in death penalty-eligible cases, but wrote that the race of the victim proved to be a major factor in determining whether prosecutors sought the death penalty.
Furthermore, the race of the victim and offender taken together showed significant differences. Prosecutors filed death notices, indicating their intent to seek the death penalty, in almost half of the homicides where a black defendant killed a white victim, but only in about a quarter of all other homicides.
The study also concluded and that geography plays a major role in whether a defendant faces a potential death penalty. Of Maryland's 12 men on death row, eight are black and four are white. In all 12 cases, the victims were white. The state has executed three people, two of them black, since 1978, all for killing white victims.