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COLUMN ONE : A Grim Life on Military Death Row : As the armed forces prepare to resume executions, six men await their fate at Ft. Leavenworth. The fact that only one is white renews debate over the question of equal justice.

July 12, 1994|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FT. LEAVENWORTH, Kan. — On the far-flung Kansas prairie, in the basement of a prison built by prisoners, six members of the United States Armed Forces await death.

More than 30 years have passed since the last soldier was hanged here and the old wooden gallows was taken down, boxed up, removed from memory. Today, a new Death Row holds three soldiers, two Marines and an airman. Down the hall looms a lethal-injection chamber designed to dispatch these men with the push of a needle.

Amid rising fear of crime, state governments have been stepping up the pace of executions, and now the military also is preparing to resume capital punishment. By year's end, several of the new inmates will have exhausted their appeals before military tribunals. Their death warrants will be readied for the President's signature.

While the method will be new, in one important respect military executions will resume as if time had not passed. In the 1950s, black soldiers routinely were hanged while whites were spared. Five of the six condemned men at Leavenworth are minorities. Two black Marines are soon to arrive, while a white soldier in a separate case earlier had his sentence commuted to life and was taken off Death Row.

Each time an African American was sent to Death Row, white victims were involved. For whatever reason, blacks convicted of killing blacks received life terms.

The issue of race resonates in civilian death penalty cases as well. In 1990, the government General Accounting Office survey found a "pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities" in death sentences across the nation. Last year, a House Judiciary subcommittee determined that "racial prejudice was a determining factor" in the convictions of many condemned inmates. House and Senate conferees are hotly debating a provision of the pending crime bill that would permit appeals of death sentences based on apparent racial disparities in imposing the penalty.

The military, however, may bear a particular burden of proof on the question of equal justice. Among the first American public institutions to be integrated, it also has executed many more blacks than whites. Between the passage of the Uniform Code of Military Justice in 1950 and the suspension of military executions in 1961, eight of the nine soldiers put to death were black; one was white. (Before the uniform code, each service had its own court-martial policy that included capital punishment.)

Half of prisoners awaiting execution in the United States are white. In Leavenworth's small sample, it is only one of six. Of all active-duty military personnel, 19.6% are African American; 5.3% are Latino and 4.7% represent other minorities. The military began integration in the early 1950s.

"This is the way the death penalty in the military has historically been played out," complained Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center. "When the victim is white there seems to be more sympathy . . . and when the defendant is black, the punishment tends to be greater."

David M. Brahms, a white, retired brigadier general who was the highest military attorney in the Marine Corps when he retired in 1988, said that black defendants often feel they are treated unfairly. He said the base commander most often will be white and court-martial juries, composed of officers, are likely to be all white.

If you are a black defendant, "you don't come away with the sense that these people understand you," he said. "You don't feel that these people appreciate your background, where you came from."

Proponents of the death penalty, who noted that President Ronald Reagan reinstated it in the military in 1984 only for cases with special circumstances, said it is applied fairly and uniformly.

"The military system is one where the punishments are generally harsher than they are in civilian life, anyway," said Paul Kamenar, executive legal director of the Washington Legal Foundation, a nonprofit public interest law and policy center.

"The death penalty in the military is rarely used, but the fact that it is there does act as a deterrent. Those in the military know that it is an available punishment."

Col. Gregory A. Lowe, commandant at the Leavenworth prison, said it would be wrong to assume that military justice is racist. Each court-martial has its own individual components, he said, adding that no two crimes are exactly alike.

"I don't know all the details of their cases," he said. "But I don't have any racial quotas."

"I have only one color of inmate," he added. "They're all generic."

*

None of the men on Ft. Leavenworth's Death Row is a Billy Budd, the sailor hanged at sea whom novelist Herman Melville endowed with the "gaiety of high health, youth and a free heart." These are multiple murderers and schemers. They drowned their children and bludgeoned their wives and stabbed their military superiors.

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