ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s death penalty is set to go on trial today, as a Senate committee is scheduled to hear a bill to suspend executions for two years.
Senate Bill 316 would place a moratorium on executions pending completion of a University of Maryland study of racial disparity of death penalty convictions. The study began in the fall and should be finished in September 2002. The moratorium would run a year longer so lawmakers could consider the results.
A similar bill was introduced last year in the House of Delegates and was killed without a committee vote, but events around the state may signal a shifting attitude toward capital punishment. An informal poll of Judicial Proceedings Committee members shows a 50-50 split, and Chairman Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, said he is “waiting to hear the evidence” on the bill. Plus, five Maryland death sentences have been overturned in the past year. In June 2000, Gov. Parris N. Glendening commuted the death sentence of Eugene Colvin-El, who was scheduled to die for the stabbing death of 82-year-old Lena Buckman.
Glendening said he commuted the sentence because he lacked “absolute certainty” of Colvin-El’s guilt. Colvin-El remains in prison on a life sentence.
In July, Joe Roy Metheny’s death sentence was overturned by the Court of Appeals. Metheny pleaded guilty in 1998 to the murder of Catherine Magaziner, but the court said there were no aggravating circumstances necessary for the death penalty.
Late last year, Jean Clermont’s death penalty was overturned by a Prince George’s County Circuit judge because of ineffective counsel during his original trial, and he was re-sentenced to life in prison.
In January, the conviction and death sentence of Eugene Wilder was overturned by the Court of Appeals. Wilder will face another trial.
Finally, the death sentence of Wallace Ball was overturned this year by a Charles County Circuit judge, but the state is appealing that decision.
There may be increased pressure on Glendening to support a moratorium this year. Four prisoners are in the final phases of their appeals, and the governor’s decision on their fate will be closely scrutinized. Glendening’s spokeswoman said he evaluates each case on its merits, and will continue that until the university study is finished. The state completed two previous death penalty studies, which detailed the overrepresentation of African-Americans on death row, but each failed to conclude the system was tainted with racism.
The current study, being led by Raymond Paternoster at the University of Maryland, goes far beyond the other two in collecting empirical data on the state’s capital crimes. It will catalog hundreds of characteristics for each of 2,000 crimes in order to match similar circumstances. Then, researchers can compare the race of the perpetrators and their sentences to see if the death penalty is applied unfairly to minorities.
Nine of the 13 men on Maryland’s death row are African-American. Backers of the moratorium point out nearly 75 percent of victims of death row criminals are white, but the overwhelming majority of murder victims statewide are African-American.
Regional disparities also exist. Baltimore County accounts for less than 5 percent of the state’s murders, but nine men on death row were convicted in that county, according a Baltimore public defender’s office spokeswoman.
The death penalty has been under attack both regionally and nationally since reviews of DNA evidence have led to the freeing of several death row inmates.
In Virginia, Earl Washington was exonerated and freed in October through DNA evidence, which proved him innocent of rape and murder after 18 years in prison.
The Virginia Assembly also is considering legislation to suspend or abolish the death penalty.
In Illinois, Republican Gov. George Ryan indefinitely suspended executions over questions of racial inequity and inadequate defense for defendants facing capital punishment.
Still, anti-death penalty legislation will not travel easily in the Maryland General Assembly.
Sen. Richard F. Colburn, R-Dorchester, judiciary committee member, said the moratorium bill is a “parliamentary maneuver.” “My gut feeling is, the people who want a moratorium, are after a ban.” – 30 – CNS-2-21-01