New York Times

Last week’s report from the Justice Department confirming stark racial and geographic disparities in the imposition of federal death sentences has underscored the arbitrariness of the nation’s death penalty system. The Clinton administration ought to impose a moratorium on the death penalty in federal cases until existing flaws are remedied.
Since 1995, some 80 percent of the 682 defendants who have faced capital charges in the federal courts have been minorities. After conviction, United States attorneys recommended the death penalty for 183 of these defendants, 74 percent of whom were minorities. This is even more racially lopsided than the death sentencing record in states with high execution rates, like Texas and Mississippi.

The geographic disparity is no less stark. United States attorneys in only 49 of the nation’s 94 judicial districts have made recommendations to seek the death penalty in the past five years. Just five of the offices generated about 40 percent of the death penalty cases submitted for review. Attorney General Janet Reno said she was “troubled” by the apparent racial and geographic divide and called for a broader study of the “bias” issue by outside experts. Yet, disappointingly, she shied away from endorsing suspension of federal executions pending the outcome of that review. Her flimsy excuse was that the new data raised no question about the innocence of the defendants. The idea of executing innocent people is horrifying. But so is choosing which guilty people to execute on the basis of their race or state of residence.

Ms. Reno’s response may provide political cover for President Clinton and the Democratic presidential nominee, Al Gore, as they continue to avoid facing the serious moral and constitutional problems afflicting the federal death penalty system. But it cannot obscure the administration’s duty to make sure no executions occur until the unfairness is cured.