For Immediate Release
January 7, 2003
Contacts: Neil Tickner, 301 405 4622 or email@example.com
UM Study: Race, Geography Factors in Md. Death Penalty Decisions
COLLEGE PARK, Md. Race affects the way death penalty cases are handled in Maryland, mainly influencing prosecutors' decisions early in the process, says a new study from a University of Maryland criminologist and statistician. The study also finds substantial variations in the way Maryland jurisdictions deal with capital cases.
"Disparities in treatment start at the earliest stages of prosecution," says Raymond Paternoster, the study's principal investigator. "These differences are not exacerbated at trial or actual sentencing phases, but they also don't get corrected then. So disparities persist."
Conducted over two-and-a-half years, this statistical analysis of thousands of public records is the most exhaustive study ever of Maryland's application of the death penalty. The researchers examined records of every homicide prosecution in which the death penalty might have been applied between 1978, when the law took effect, and 1999. They found:
Since 1987, four studies have examined charges of racial disparity and arbitrary jurisdictional differences in the handling of Maryland death penalty cases. All have suffered from two deficiencies: They did not look at every case in which the death penalty could have been sought, and they failed to consider the effects of various case characteristics that might masquerade as racial effects and lead to false conclusions.
This study was designed to correct these inadequacies. Based on prison and prosecution records, researchers concluded there were nearly 6,000 homicide prosecutions in Maryland between 1978 and 1999. Then they determined which of these cases were death eligible - met the minimum legal requirements for application of the death penalty. In all but 300 cases, this determination was clear-cut. To handle the ambiguous cases, researchers convened a panel of expert defense and prosecution lawyers. All together, 1,311 case99 met the definition of death eligible.
Researchers then combed the prison, court, prosecution, defense, police and public health records of these 1,311 cases looking for detailed information about characteristics of the defendants, victims and crimes. This yielded about 100 pages of details on each case, which researchers translated into data on 123 possible explanatory case factors.
In their analysis, researchers examined how these case factors correlated with the way cases were handled at four critical decision points - 1) prosecutors' initial decision on whether to seek a death sentence, by filing a notice of intent; 2) subsequent decisions on whether to retract this notice or let it "stick;" 3) prosecutors' decisions to press for a death sentence after conviction; 4) judges' or juries' actual sentences.
Paternoster analyzed the data in two stages. When he found an apparent race and geographic effect, as most earlier studies had, he then statistically "controlled" for the 123 variables - to see whether the effects were real. Could other case characteristics explain what at first appeared to be the effects of race and jurisdiction?
"Statistically, I threw the kitchen sink at these initial findings," Paternoster says. "My hunch was other case characteristics could at least knock out the race effect. But it didn't. The race and geography effects are very robust."
Specific Findings (Final Analysis)
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