Death Sentences Highlight Racial Gap

Monday, July 24th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHICAGO (AP) — White defendants in federal capital cases are more likely than blacks to negotiate plea bargains that spare their lives, according to an analysis of 146 cases prosecuted since Congress reinstated capital punishment.

Sixty percent of white defendants avoided capital punishment through a negotiated settlement in cases in which the Justice Department chose to pursue the death penalty. Typically, those plea bargains result in either life sentences or long prison terms.

For black defendants in those cases, 41 percent reached an agreement with prosecutors, according to the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project, a private group that receives federal funding to track federal capital cases.

``This raises a red flag,'' said David Baldus, a University of Iowa law professor who has studied race and the death penalty. ``The sample on the plea agreements isn't so small at all, and the magnitude of the disparity is very strong.''

The analysis parallels a Justice Department study of geographic and racial differences in the imposition of the death penalty. This month, President Clinton ordered the postponement of the first federal execution in 40 years, scheduled for Aug. 5, until the Justice Department could complete the review and establish clemency procedures.

Attorney General Janet Reno said last week she expects the results soon.

Justice Department spokesman Myron Marlin said the statistical disparity alone does not necessarily demonstrate racial bias by federal prosecutors.

``Plea bargain numbers alone can be misleading,'' Marlin told the Chicago Tribune. ``They do not show how often pleas are offered or the rates at which they were rejected or accepted ... One cannot tell the severity of the offense involved, the strength of the case or considerations affected by judicial rulings during the course of the trial.''