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Urban Rhythms

Studied to Death

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 4/4/2001

Let's suppose that state lawmakers agree to impose a two-year moratorium on the death penalty, and that during this period the University of Maryland gets to conduct its proposed study of racial bias.

That's what the Maryland General Assembly is considering as it nears the April 9 close of its 2001 legislative session. The House of Delegates has approved the measure, but it is stalled in the state Senate's Judicial Proceedings Committee. Lawmakers are wheeling and dealing. Passions are high.

But let's put all that aside, leap forward a few days, and pretend that the measure passes as written. OK: No executions for two years, pending a study to determine whether capital punishment is unfairly imposed

on African-Americans. What do you think those UM researchers will find? Well, allow me to make a few predictions.

I predict that, beyond the undisputed fact that nine of the 13 people on death row in Maryland are black, they will discover that most of the people sentenced to death since the state restored the death penalty in the mid-1970s have had dusky skin and hair like lamb's wool.

I predict they will learn that most if not all of the blacks condemned to die were tried by a white prosecutor before a majority-white jury in a courtroom presided over by a white judge.

Finally, I predict that the researchers will find that most if not all of those black defendants were accused of killing a white person. If the worth of a life is measured by the amount of revenge we seek for its taking, black lives in Maryland appear to be relatively cheap.

I can make those predictions with a fair degree of confidence because this issue has been studied before, in Maryland and nationwide. In fact, it has been studied ad nauseam. The fingerprints of racial bias are all over the death penalty, and have been so since African-Americans became emancipated and thus eligible to be executed as citizens instead of as property. Today, the overwhelming majority of executions occur in the former slaveholding states of the Old South. Maryland, it should be noted, is a former slaveholding state.

But I will be very much surprised if researchers find clear and convincing proof of out-and-out racial bias--evidence that police zero in on black murderers, or that prosecutors, judges, and juries consciously and maliciously single out blacks for execution. Researchers can look for two years or they can take a decade. They won't find proof of such out-and-out bias because racism as applied to the death penalty isn't that simple.

When researchers take a good, long look at the people sentenced to die in Maryland, they will be hard put to demonstrate that those killers don't deserve the harshest punishment the state can deal out. And when researchers speak with the decision-makers in the system, from homicide detectives to the people on the juries, they'll find it hard not to acknowledge that those decision-makers were genuinely horrified by the crime. Sometimes, statistics don't tell the tale.

And so, I wonder whether all the passion and energy currently being expended in Annapolis isn't a waste of time. The pattern of racial disparity in the imposition of the death penalty is readily apparent. We don't need another study to tell us what we already know, and have known for decades.

Yet the motives of police, prosecutors, juries, and judges almost certainly will withstand scrutiny. Here you have a jury of white citizens and an accused murderer who is black. Are they outraged because the fellow in the dock is black or because he has committed an outrageous crime? I humbly suggest that perhaps their outrage is based on the act, not the actor. At any rate, I defy you to prove otherwise.

The moratorium may give the men on death row two extra years. But I doubt the study will change many minds.

Those who are against the death penalty and who believe it is unfair--and I happen to be one of them--will continue to feel that way. But I believe race is at best an incidental factor in how we determine who dies and who doesn't. People who are poor, uneducated, addicted to drugs and alcohol, and alienated from society are more likely to kill than the wealthy, the healthy, and the gainfully employed. Poor people cannot afford effective legal counsel, and they are least likely to generate much sympathy from a jury. Their race simply ups the ante.

But those in favor of the death penalty, the majority of the people in Maryland and the nation, aren't really bothered by the disparity in capital punishment, be it a function of race or class. A smoking gun isn't likely to change their opinion--even if researchers managed to find one.

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