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January 29, 2003

Another Study Would Be Redundant: Ban The Death Penalty

Al Duke

There are just too many problems with the death penalty. It has always been truly said that it is better for a guilty man to go free than for an innocent man to go to prison. Then, should not we equally say that it is better for a guilty man to spend his life in prison than for an innocent man to die?

The University of Maryland study authored by Raymond Paternoster, et al, illuminates certain aspects of the problem: that is to say the racial inequity in the system and the geographical distribution of death sentences.

Paternoster presents data on 1,311 death penalty-eligible cases in Maryland in the period 1978-1999. The study investigated the effect of the victim's race and the accused's race (and the combination of the two) and the further effect of the jurisdiction of the crime.

The Executive Summary of the study notes that "defendants who kill white victims are at significantly greater risk of actually receiving a death sentence. This difference remains statistically significant after adjusting for county and individual case characteristics."

As far as race of the offender is concerned, the study did not show a significant difference in black vs. non-black death penalty notices filed by state's attorneys, but there was a suggestion in the data that black defendants could be at slightly greater risk of having a death penalty notice filed against them.

Statistically putting the two categories together then, showed that when the accused is black and the victim is white, the defendant has a greater chance of being sentenced to death than any of the other possibilities (white-black, black-black, white-white).

Furthermore, when the decision on the death penalty is left up to the individual prosecutors in various regions of the state, the application of that penalty becomes effectively arbitrary and capricious in the state as a whole.

Again, the Executive Summary of the report notes that "death-eligible defendants in some counties are significantly more likely to receive a death sentence than defendants in other counties."

An interesting detail of Figure 9 shows that 44% of the death-eligible homicides occurred in Baltimore City while 12% were committed in Baltimore County. Then after proceeding through the various criminal trial procedures, 45% of the death sentences were from Baltimore County and only 13% from Baltimore City, a complete reversal of the proportions.

Another aspect of the death penalty problem is the large number of people who are wrongly convicted of crimes. As of January 23, 2003, the Innocence Project has documented 123 cases of people who were wrongly convicted. All of these people were exonerated through new evidence based on DNA testing. Many have served long terms in jail. In his book Actual Innocence (Barry Scheck, et al), published in the year 2000, the authors noted 73 cases in which those convicted had been exonerated by new DNA evidence. Nine of these individuals (13%) were under sentence of death.

We are not talking about the taking of the offender's life in self-defense to protect the community from his actions. We are talking about retribution for a heinous act. However, the death penalty presumes to be fair and equal in its application to all the cases for which it is the ultimate punishment. Paternoster shows that it is not. The death penalty also presumes to be applied only to guilty people. Scheck shows that it is not. I think it is beyond arguing that innocent people have been executed in the United States (in Maryland?) for crimes they did not commit.

Lt. Gov. Michael Steele should strongly urge Gov. Robert Ehrlich to continue to refrain from applying the death penalty. I personally do not think another study is needed, as this one seems pretty definitive by my reading. But if the new administration wants to spend taxpayers' money on a redundant study, then by all means, do so. It would not be the first redundant effort in the history of American government.

I hope the conclusion will be that the death penalty cannot be applied without bias and with complete surety of guilt in every case. And I would call upon the General Assembly to take action to abolish the death penalty in the State of Maryland.

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