ANNAPOLIS – Death row inmate Tyrone Delano Gilliam, who faces execution as early as Monday, has one thing in common with nine of the other 14 prisoners sentenced to death in Maryland – he is a black man who killed a white person.
As Gilliam’s scheduled execution approaches, anti-death penalty groups and some NAACP members argue that capital punishment in Maryland is racially biased.
Maryland’s death row includes 12 black men, 80 percent of the total. Nationwide in 1996, 42 percent of the 3,219 people on death row were black, according to the most recent statistics available from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Unconscious racial bias could be behind the predominance of blacks on death row, said Rodney Orange, president of the Baltimore City branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“Most often we see black faces versus white faces on television,” Orange said. “So people watch and they get programmed to thinking that blacks commit most crimes.”
Another reason that death rows are disproportionately black could be minorities are less likely to have the money to hire private lawyers to fight their cases for the decade it could take to wend their way through the appeals process, said state Sen. Decatur W. Trotter, D-Prince George’s, an opponent of capital punishment.
“Poor people, often minorities, don’t have the money to get smart lawyers who lessen the penalty with plea bargains,” Trotter said.
The American Bar Association called for a national moratorium on the death penalty in February 1997 over concerns that defendants in such cases were not competently represented.
But Baltimore County Deputy State’s Attorney Sue Schenning said attorneys provided by the state are capable.
“I can state with confidence that the process is fair,” Schenning said. “You have to look at the process, not the end result.”
In Maryland, about 87 percent of those arrested for murder in 1996 were black, according to the Maryland Uniform Crime Report. Maryland’s percentage is significantly higher than the national average of 55 percent, according to FBI statistics for 1996.
Those against the death penalty also say the preponderance of death row inmates convicted of killing whites shows racial bias. Although the large majority – 82 percent – of murder victims in Maryland in 1996 were black, only four of the 19 victims of the death row inmates were black.
Despite these figures, death penalty opponents agree with proponents that it is difficult to pinpoint specific instances of prejudice.
“In any one case, it is hard to show that there is bias,” said Cathy Knepper, the Maryland death penalty abolition coordinator for Amnesty International.
Richard Samp, chief counsel of the Washington Legal Foundation, a public interest law firm and death penalty supporter, said there is a “slight correlation” between the race of the victim and whether the convict receives a death sentence.
But, he added, “If you look at prison figures in the same way, you could come up with the conclusion that we shouldn’t incarcerate anybody.”
The debate has raged for decades.
In 1972, the Supreme Court ended capital punishment because, it said, death sentences were arbitrarily administered. But four years later, it reversed its stance to allow states to use the death penalty if they had specific laws defining what crimes would be punishable by death.
The death penalty in Maryland can be given to the trigger man in a first-degree, premeditated murder if there was at least one aggravating circumstance.
Or the penalty can be given to the trigger men in murder cases that weren’t premeditated, if they were committed in the course of other certain crimes.
Aggravating circumstances include kidnapping, carjacking, robbery, arson or sexual offense; the victim was an on-duty police officer; the convict committed the murder while in a correctional facility; the convict was fleeing the law; or the convict hired someone to commit the murder.
Two recent governor’s commissions studied capital punishment in Maryland. Former Gov. William Donald Schaefer’s 1993 Commission on the Death Penalty did not find any intentional discrimination in sentences, but commented that the racial composition of death row was a “legitimate concern.”
In 1996, Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s Task Force on the Fair Implementation of Capital Punishment suggested a commission do analyses to determine how much of a part race plays in death penalty sentencing. It also suggested diversity training to help judges, state’s attorneys and prosecutors develop an awareness of unconscious racial prejudices.
During the 1980s, Maryland death penalty opponents would introduce a bill to abolish it in nearly every legislative session, Knepper said, but the measures would be killed in House committees.
Public support for abolition is thin, said the Rev. Douglas I. Miles, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, a Baltimore group opposed to the death penalty.
Potomac Survey Research President Keith Haller said a Maryland poll by his organization in 1997 showed 53 percent of blacks to be in favor of the death penalty. Support among blacks was less than the general population: Seventy-three percent supported capital punishment, Haller said.
Maryland Black Caucus Vice Chairman Nathaniel J. McFadden, D-Baltimore, said he once opposed the death penalty. But as urban violence has increased, he has become a proponent.
“I think there is a solid, 60 percent majority of African Americans who favor capital punishment because of the rampant crime in their own neighborhoods,” the state senator said. “They are simply fed up.”
Since abolition doesn’t carry broad support, death penalty opponents have turned to narrowing down who can receive the sentence. Laws passed in Maryland in 1987 and 1989 barred the execution of the mentally retarded or juveniles.
Trotter said the way to convince people the death penalty is wrong is to make it mandatory for all those convicted of being the trigger man in first-degree murders. “The image of a wealthy, white murderer being executed by the state will make people take another look at the death penalty,” he said. -30-