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Study Finds Racial Gap on Death Row

Crime: More black convicts face capital punishment than whites. Activists call for a federal moratorium on executions.


WASHINGTON — A Justice Department study has found that black convicts in the federal penal system face the death penalty much more often than white prisoners, confirming the arguments of those who say that capital punishment is not applied uniformly.

The statistical survey, the first comprehensive study of the federal death penalty since it was reinstated in 1988, found a wide racial disparity in recommendations for capital punishment from federal prosecutors across the country. Roughly three-fourths of federal defendants recommended for capital punishment over the last five years were minorities.

President Clinton said that the figures raise concerns "since we're supposed to have a uniform law of the land." But he added that there had been "no suggestion, as far as I know, that any of the [federal] cases where convictions occurred were wrongly decided."

With the fairness of capital punishment figuring in the presidential campaign, the findings promptly led to renewed calls from some members of Congress, legal groups and human rights organizations for a federal moratorium on executions.

Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, however, rejected a moratorium on the federal death penalty, saying that such a delay "goes to the issue of people who were wrongfully charged," which the department's survey does not address.

Instead, Reno called for additional research and said that overrepresentation of minorities on federal death rows reflects racial and economic disparities throughout the criminal justice system and points to the connection between crime and higher rates of economic and social problems in minority communities.

More than anything, Reno said, the survey's findings may reflect that "our system, our society, is not fair to a large number of minority children . . . who do not have equal opportunities."

While the figures "should be a concern to us all," she said, so long as poverty, drug abuse and unequal opportunities continue to take an especially heavy toll on black youths, "we will continue to see disparities in the number of minorities in the criminal justice system." The study found that, of 682 defendants charged with federal crimes subject to the death penalty, 20% were white and 80% were minorities. U.S. attorneys recommended that the death penalty be sought for 183 of them--26% of them white and 74% minorities.

Reno approved seeking death penalties for 159 of those 183 defendants--28% of whom were white and 72% minorities, the majority of them black.

Deputy Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., who supervised the study, said that he was "personally and professionally disturbed by the [racial] disparity," which showed that "minorities are overrepresented" on federal death rows.

The study also found geographic differences in application of the federal death penalty. Just nine of the 94 U.S. attorney districts accounted for 43% of all death penalty recommendations. They are Puerto Rico, two in the New York region, western Missouri, western Tennessee, northern Texas, New Mexico, and parts of Virginia and Maryland.

Although state systems were not included in the Justice Department's survey, Reno said that she believes the racial disparities "may be roughly the same."

Study Based on Recommendations

During the latest five-year span, 20 defendants have received death sentences from federal judges or juries. Only a fifth of them are white.

But the Justice Department study focused on the recommendations of its own officials in Washington and its top prosecutors in the field, not on actual death sentences meted out in the federal system.

In the federal system, capital punishment is reserved for such offenses as terrorist bombings, violence in some drug crimes, violence at international airports, assassination of government officials and violent crimes in aid of racketeering activity.

To achieve more uniformity, Reno established a new system in 1995. U.S. attorneys now must submit cases to a review committee in Washington. Reno herself then has to approve the death penalty when it is sought for federal defendants. Neither the review team members nor Reno are told the race of a defendant.

The report noted that "overall, the federal government continues to play a relatively small role in administering the death penalty in this country." From 1930 to 1999, state governments executed 4,400 defendants, mostly for murder convictions, which generally are state crimes. In the same period, the federal government put to death only 33 defendants and has not carried out any executions since 1963.

Leaders Urge Delay of Executions

The Supreme Court in 1972 struck down state death penalty laws on grounds that they were being applied unfairly, a ruling that also brought federal executions to a halt, even though there had been none during the previous nine years. The court later reinstated the death penalty after the adoption of new procedures.

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