ANNAPOLIS – Black Americans have been aware of problems with the death penalty for years, the sponsor of a Senate bill to study the sanction’s disparities told a House committee Wednesday, and it’s time something is done about those problems.
“The African-American public is very aware of these disparities, and they’ve been saying this for years and years,” Sen. Ralph Hughes, D-Baltimore, told the House Judiciary Committee. “The criminal justice system in Maryland is unfair.”
Hughes’ bill, which passed the Senate 30-16 last month, would create a new Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment. The panel would continue a University of Maryland study of the state’s use of the death penalty released last year and would be charged with proposing solutions.
The springboard for the bill was a 2003 University of Maryland study by Raymond Paternoster, commissioned by former Gov. Parris Glendening, which found both racial and geographic bias in how the state applies the ultimate sanction.
“Inequalities have led to the death penalty,” Hughes said. “After the 2003 Report by Raymond Paternoster, nothing was done to solve the problems presented by his study. The application of the death penalty is not fair as far as we are concerned.”
Jane Henderson, director of the Quixote Center, an advocacy group located in Hyattsville, pointed out in her written testimony that Paternoster found the chance that the state’s attorney would seek a death sentence was twice as high if the person was black rather than white.
Black perpetrators of crimes who killed white victims were nearly three times more likely to face the death penalty in Baltimore County than in the city of Baltimore. Finally, everyone on death row currently is there for the murder of a white person, she said the study found.
Adding to the difficulties surrounding the death penalty is the advent of reliable genetic testing, which has been instrumental in freeing a number of death row inmates nationwide, Hughes and others said.
Hughes’ bill would approve a commission consisting of two state senators, two delegates, the Attorney General, the State Public Defender, a state’s attorney, the president of the Maryland State Bar Association, the secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services, and the president of the Maryland Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Opponents have argued that Paternoster’s study found that race was not a relevant factor in the application of the death penalty.
Gov. Robert Ehrlich has said in the past that the death penalty has been administered fairly, but his office could not be reached for comment on the bill.
In 2002, Glendening imposed a moratorium on executions while Paternoster completed his study. The moratorium was voided with the election of Ehrlich.