Study of death row exposes the racism of the system

Maryland’s death penalty full of flaws


By: Michael Stark

A study of Maryland’s capital punishment system has confirmed its many critics’ worst fears: that Maryland’s death penalty is applied in a racist and geographically arbitrary way.

Yet despite these dramatic findings, Gov. Robert Ehrlich has restarted the machinery of death, clearing the way for Steven Oken to be put to death in March, and setting the stage for as many as six more executions this year--the most executions in a single year in Maryland’s history.

There are many flaws with Maryland’s death penalty, but among the most outrageous is the racist way that it is applied. A quick glance of Maryland’s death row shows that former Gov. Parris Glendening had good reason to cite racial disparities when he halted executions. All of the prisoners currently on death row are accused of killing whites, in a state where Blacks account for around 80 percent of murder victims each year.

As the University of Maryland study, commissioned by Glendening, concludes: "Blacks who kill whites are two-and-one-half times more likely to be sentenced to death than are whites who kill whites, three-and-one-half times more likely than are Blacks who kill Blacks, and almost 11 times more likely to be sentenced to death than ‘other’ racial combinations."

Historically, Maryland has a horrible record of using the death penalty against minorities. Blacks have accounted for 77 percent of all executions in Maryland since 1923 (when Maryland started to keep track of such things)--and 88 percent of those executed under the age of 25. Residents should remember the historical tie between the death penalty and the shameful history of lynching and racial terror.

Maryland’s death penalty is further flawed because it does not do what its supporters claim: deter crime. Not a shred of credible evidence exists to suggest that the death penalty prevents crime--not in Maryland, nor anywhere in the country. Since 1982, Texas has led the nation in executions. During that same 20-year period, its crime rate continued to soar past national averages.

We know what deters crime: good jobs and schools, decent housing and effective social programs. We can also say with certainty that as Maryland’s economy continues to falter, crime will go up--because in the vast majority of cases, crime is what happens to poor people by other poor and desperate people.

As Maryland faces a budget crisis and Ehrlich contemplates cuts in social services, we must not be fooled by the "tough talk" of death penalty supporters who enthusiastically extol ex! ecutions as the solution to the problems of crime. If an administration deals with poverty, it deals with crime. Ignore poverty and instead continue to spend money on prisons, police, and the death penalty? Well, as they say, "If you build it, they will come."

Maryland’s death penalty is flawed because it threatens the innocent. Ehrlich should be reminded of the story of Kirk Bloodsworth: an innocent man sent to Maryland’s death row in 1984. Bloodsworth was exonerated because a bureaucratic oversight prevented the destruction of all the evidence in his case.

Like so many others freed from death row, it wasn’t the effective workings of our legal system that freed Kirk Bloodsworth. It was the random and unexpected discovery of DNA evidence that proved his innocence.

But DNA cases are easy. What about the majority of death cases in which no DNA evidence exists? Consider the case of Eugene Colvin-El, who was taken off death row days before his executions, because former Gov. Glendening couldn’t be certain of his guilt. There are others, too. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently examining claims of innocence and inadequate representation by Kevin Wiggins, another Maryland death row prisoner.

Death row is fallible because Maryland’s justice system is fallible. The death penalty is an expensive, wasteful process that consumes courts, prisons and state officials. It is divisive and hurtful, and yet provides no reasonable justification for its use. It works as arbitrary revenge for a limited and randomly selected set of crimes. Terrible as some of these crimes might be, this isn’t justice. It’s a lottery.

Glendening’s moratorium was an opportunity to examine these issues and an important step towards promoting fairness in our justice system. Maryland stands at an historic threshold--the findings of the $250,000 death penalty study presents us with a unique opportunity to seriously address questions in our use of capital punishment.

To simply resume executions is wrong. And we plan to keep up the fight until we prove it!