Sizable racial disparity found in federal death-penalty cases

Wednesday, September 13th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Michelle Mittelstadt / The Dallas Morning News

WASHINGTON – Minority defendants were involved in 80 percent of cases eligible for the death penalty by federal prosecutors since 1995, the Justice Department said Tuesday.

The sweeping review of capital punishment statistics could fuel the national debate over the death penalty and the campaign for a moratorium on executions. Justice officials also acknowledged widespread geographic disparity. The White House pronounced the findings "troubling," while moratorium backers said the results offer stark proof of the need for a timeout in a system they described as broken.

"These findings are especially troubling because when the machinery of justice is working unequally or not at all, the results aren't just disturbing – they are deadly," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., author of legislation that would change the system.

The federal death-penalty process was retooled by Attorney General Janet Reno in 1995 in a bid to obtain a more uniform and race-blind system. It now requires federal prosecutors to obtain her approval for all death sentences after a review committee of Justice officials provides her a recommendation in each case. But some say the system is not uniform. U.S. attorneys in nearly half of the nation's 94 federal judicial districts have never recommended the death penalty, the study found. Just three districts, in Virginia, Puerto Rico and Missouri, accounted for nearly a quarter of the 183 cases since 1995 in which the U.S. attorney recommended that capital punishment be sought. And just five districts (two in New York and one each in Puerto Rico, Virginia and Maryland) accounted for 42 percent of the 682 cases submitted for Justice Department death-
penalty consideration in the last five years.

"I can't help but be both personally and professionally disturbed by the numbers that we discuss today," said Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, who was asked by Ms. Reno in February to do the first comprehensive federal review. "To be sure, many factors have led to the disproportionate representation of racial and ethnic minorities throughout the federal death-penalty process," he said at a news conference with Ms. Reno. "Nevertheless, no one reading this report can help but be disturbed, troubled by this disparity."

Yet he and Ms. Reno reiterated their belief that the federal capital punishment system essentially is a fair one. She said she is "convinced that the evidence and the law justify" the death penalty in the cases of the 19 inmates currently under federal sentence of death. Seventy-eight percent of those are minorities. The 398-page compilation of statistics offers no conclusions or recommendations. But death-penalty opponents and moratorium supporters said the numbers alone are damning. "All Americans agree that whether you die for committing a federal crime should not depend arbitrarily on the color of your skin or randomly on where you live," said Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., who is pressing for a moratorium.

While acknowledging a "rather astonishing geographic disparity" along with racial imbalance, President Clinton declined to step into the moratorium debate Tuesday, saying he wants to hear what Ms. Reno and others have to say. Both the attorney general and her deputy said they see no need for a moratorium, even as the federal government prepares for its first execution since 1963.

A convicted killer from South Texas, Juan Raul Garza, is set to be executed in December. The president stayed Mr. Garza's August execution date to give the inmate time to file for clemency under new procedures. The report issued Tuesday suggests the racial and geographic disparities occur at the beginning of the process – in the charging phase – and aren't exacerbated during the Justice review. Of the 682 cases in which defendants faced capital charges in the last five years, 20 percent of the defendants were white; 29 percent Hispanic; and 47.5 percent African-American. The attorney general authorized seeking the death penalty less than a third of the time. In those 159 cases, 48 percent of the defendants were African-American; 28 percent white; and 20 percent Hispanic. "What this shows is that if there is bias, it's at the very initial stage of the case," said Rory Little, a Hastings College of the Law professor and former federal prosecutor who served on Ms. Reno's capital case review committee. A moratorium supporter, Houston lawyer Richard Burr, said the problem "is in every U.S. attorney's office in the country. What they are doing is exercising racially influenced discretion about what cases they charge as federal cases and which among those they seek the federal death penalty for."

Mr. Burr is a member of the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project. The study, the attorney general acknowledged, presents only a partial snapshot because it does not track the universe of cases in which capital charges could have been filed but weren't. Ms. Reno said she is asking the National Institute of Justice to commission a study examining how prosecutors make their decisions to charge. Federal prosecutors in Texas, which leads the nation in executions carried out by states, aren't among the most vigorous in seeking the death penalty. Of the 682 death penalty-eligible cases considered since 1995, 28 were submitted by U.S. attorneys in Texas. They recommended seeking the death penalty in 14 cases.