ANNAPOLIS – The 13 inmates on Maryland’s death row should follow the gubernatorial race very closely – their lives may depend on it.
While Gov. Parris Glendening halted all state executions in May, it is his successor who will have the power to lift that moratorium. And it is a governor’s attitude that strongly determines the rate at which the ultimate penalty is used by Maryland, a recent Capital News Service study found.
Glendening imposed the moratorium on executions until a two-year study by the University of Maryland, College Park, is completed and analyzed. The $225,000 study looks at the effect race and jurisdiction have in the sentencing of a person to death and will be released in December.
In May, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend stated her support of a moratorium just days before she announced her Democratic candidacy for governor. Glendening answered with the halt a week later.
Although Glendening has said he supports capital punishment, only two people have been executed since he took office in 1995, supporting the analysis of a CNS study in April that the personal beliefs of the governor greatly effect the enforcement of the death penalty in Maryland.
In 1993, Glendening’s predecessor, William Donald Schaefer, approved the state’s first execution in 33 years and the only one of his term. In the same year, Maryland became the first state to set a death row inmate free based on genetic evidence.
Neither man compares to former Maryland governor, Herbert O’Conor who sanctioned the death of 34 men while he was in office from 1939 to 1947.
Despite her support for a moratorium, Townsend favors capital punishment, as does her Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Robert Ehrlich Jr.
“I support the death penalty, I believe there are some very heinous crimes out there. At the same time, I believe you have to apply it fairly,” Townsend said.
But Ehrlich says if he wins the election, he’ll lift the moratorium.
“Bob Ehrlich believes the death penalty is a just punishment for the most heinous crimes. Sex and race of the perpetrators must not be factors in administering the death penalty,” said Shareese DeLeaver, Ehrlich campaign spokeswoman.
Ehrlich would consider waiving a death sentence only under certain situations, such as the strong opposition of capital punishment by the victim’s family or a conviction based solely on circumstantial evidence, DeLeaver said. The results of the study will be taken into account, according to DeLeaver.
Researchers are finishing data collection on 6,000 homicides in Maryland from 1978 through 1999. The data will then be analyzed and issued in a report that was due at the end of the month, but has been delayed until December.
Raymond Paternoster, the professor leading the study, and six doctoral students are finishing data collection on the last 300 to 500 cases, Paternoster said.
The fact that the report won’t be released until after the November gubernatorial election is mere coincidence, according to Paternoster.
“When I was asked two years ago how long it would take to do this study I had no idea there was an election around this time,” he said. “This certainly isn’t politically motivated.”
Glendening launched the study after noticing possible evidence of racial and geographical disparity of death sentences. More than 60 percent of the inmates on Maryland’s death row were sent there from Baltimore County courts, even though only 5 percent of the state’s homicides occur there.
All the victims of Maryland’s death row prisoners were white. However, 85 percent of Maryland homicide victims are black, according to the Quixote Center, a nonprofit interfaith social justice organization.
“In terms of racial disparity, I think you can say it’s a nationwide trend,” said Jane Henderson, center co-director. However, Henderson was also quick to note that Maryland has one of the highest percentages of African Americans on death row.
Maryland did set a precedent in 1993, becoming the first state to set a death row inmate free based on genetic evidence. The inmate, Kirk Bloodsworth was tried and convicted out of Baltimore County.
Texas leads the way in executions, however, with 50 percent of all 2002 executions in the nation. Of the 15 executions scheduled from Tuesday through Feb. 25, 10 are from Texas. More than 600 inmates live on Texas’ death row.