Published on Wednesday, September 13, 2000 in the Los Angeles Times
Study Finds Racial Gap on Death Row
More black convicts face capital punishment than whites. Activists call for a federal moratorium on executions.
by Robert L. Jackson
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.
The federal government revised its procedures in 1988, when Congress passed the Drug Kingpin Act, making the death penalty a possible punishment for some drug-related offenses.
Under the previous system, which was in effect from 1988 to 1994, 52 defendants were submitted by U.S. attorneys to their Justice Department superiors for approval of death penalty recommendations. In that period, racial disparities were similar to those of the last five years, the study showed.
About 13% of those defendants were white, 75% were black, and most of the remainder were Latino.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), a chief sponsor of bipartisan legislation to guarantee DNA tests to certain federal inmates, called the Justice Department study "more clear evidence that the death penalty system is broken" and that "this is a national problem."
Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) renewed his demand and that of five other members of Congress that Clinton postpone any federal executions until a commission can study the issue.
Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) called for a moratorium similar to the one imposed in Illinois last January by Republican Gov. George Ryan. "We should not have business as usual," Jackson said.
William F. Schulz, executive director of the human rights group Amnesty International, said that "no one should be surprised that the federal death penalty is displaying the same lottery-like qualities that plague capital justice at a state level." He also urged a national moratorium on executions.
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times