The Death Penalty in Maryland

Document Date: September 22, 2004

The Death Penalty in Maryland:

University of Maryland Study

Why is this study different from prior studies?

There have been four prior studies that have identified racial bias in Maryland’s death penalty:
1. Study by Public Defender’s office
2. Governor’s Commission in 1993
3. Governor’s Task Force in 1996
4. Baldus/Woodward study in 2001

None of these studies:
· Examined all death eligible cases
· Analyzed all pertinent case characteristics that might explain the disparities.

This study:
· Examines all death eligible cases (1,311 cases determined to be death eligible from a universe of 6,000 cases).
· Included 123 case characteristics that were controlled to determine whether race and geographic disparities were present.
· Is the first Maryland study that can answer such questions as, “Are more black people sentenced to death because there is a race effect, or because cases with black defendants are more frequently committed in a brutal manner?”
· Confirms: yes, there is a race effect even while other factors, including geography, are accounted for.

Findings: Race

· “Among the entire universe of death eligible cases, 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.” (Executive summary, p. 36)
o The probability that a state’s attorney will seek the death penalty is 1.6 times higher when the victim is white than for a black homicide victim, even after considering case characteristics and jurisdiction issues.
o The probability of a defendant in a homicide receiving a death sentence is twice is great if the victim is white.
· Thus a state’s attorney is more likely to file a capital case and not withdraw the capital charges when the victim is white than when he or she is black. This effect cannot be explained away by reference to the characteristics of those victims or the jurisdiction where the homicide occurred.
· The race of the victim also affects whether the prosecutor withdraws the decision to seek the death penalty.
o State’s attorneys are less likely to withdraw their death notification (decision to seek the death penalty) when the victim is white.
· Black defendants accused of killing white victims are more likely than any other racial combination to be sentenced to death.
o The probability of a state’s attorney seeking the death penalty is twice as high in a black defendant/white victim case, and 1.7 times higher in a white defendant/white victim case than it is in a black defendant/black victim case.
o In cases where the death penalty is an option, blacks who kill whites are 2.5 times more likely to be sentences to death than whites who kill whites, and 3.5 times more likely than blacks who kill blacks.

Again, the effects of victim’s race “remain statistically significant even after adjusting for charging county and individual case characteristics.”

Findings: Geography

· Baltimore County makes up an increasing proportion of Maryland’s death cases as the process progresses: they comprise only 12% of all death eligible cases in Maryland, but 28% of all death notices filed, 42% of all death penalty trials, and 45% of all death sentences imposed.
· This jurisdictional variation “cannot be explained by the kinds of homicides committed in these jurisdictions,” and indicates that “where the homicide occurs matter and matters a great deal.”
· “The variation in the treatment of cases across the different legal jurisdictions was substantial and robust.”

How did the study break down the process?

This study looked at factors and analyzed disparities at 4 phases of the death penalty:
1. Decision by state’s attorney to seek death
2. Decision by state’s attorney to not withdraw the intention to seek death
3. Decision by state’s attorney to advance to penalty phases
4. Decision by judge or jury to hand down a death sentence

From University of Maryland’s statement:

· By itself, the offender’s race does not play a clear role in the way cases are handled, but the victim’s race does make a difference. Defendants accused of killing white victims are significantly more likely to face the death penalty than cases with non-white victims.

· When the race of the offender and victim are examined together, the study finds: Black offenders who kill blacks are significantly less likely to face the death penalty, while black offenders who kill whites are significantly more likely to face a death sentence than all other racial combinations.

· Prosecutors in different jurisdictions exhibit considerable variation in the extent to which they seek the death penalty.

· These trends are detected in the early stages of prosecution when state’s attorneys decide whether to seek a death sentence. They are not detected later?.but the initial disparity is not corrected at these later stages, and so its effects persist.

The study and the moratorium:

· The University of Maryland study confirmed disturbing findings, but was not charged with making recommendations to resolve these serious issues. The legislature needs time to review the findings and other concerns and make concrete policy recommendations to the General Assembly. This problem can’t be solved with a piecemeal approach, and executions should not take place while this discussion is underway.