New York Times


Saying she was “sorely troubled” by stark racial disparities in the federal death penalty, Attorney General Janet Reno today ordered United States attorneys to help explain why capital punishment is not applied uniformly across ethnic groups.

“We must ensure that all defendants who come into our system are treated in a fair and just manner,” Ms. Reno said in announcing the results of a survey that showed three-quarters of the defendants considered for the federal death penalty were members of minorities. “We must do all we can in the federal government to root out bias at every step.”

Ms. Reno said the data compiled by the Justice Department raised no questions about the innocence of defendants and therefore did not merit a moratorium on the death penalty. But critics seized on the data to buttress their calls for an immediate halt to federal executions, the last of which was in 1963.

“Just as we feared, the same serious flaws in the administration of the death penalty that have plagued the states also afflict the federal death penalty,” said Senator Russell D. Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin. “Let’s temporarily suspend federal executions and let a thoughtfully chosen commission examine the system. American ideals of justice demand that much.”
An aide to Mr. Feingold said the senator would introduce legislation this week calling for such a moratorium.

“This is the worst sort of racial profiling with the worst result,” said Julian Bond, the chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “This argues strongly for a federal moratorium until there can be assurances this can be applied fairly.”

A White House spokesman, Jake Siewert, said the study required followup.

“We’ve seen the numbers,” Mr. Siewert said. “At first glance, those numbers are troubling. We need to know more about exactly what’s behind the numbers.”

The statistical survey examined the ethnicity of the defendants in 713 capital punishment cases since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988.

Since 1995, when a formal review process was put in place, 80 percent of the 682 defendants who faced capital charges were members of minorities. United States attorneys recommended the death penalty for 183 defendants, 74 percent of whom were members of minorities.

“I can’t help but be both personally and professionally disturbed by the numbers that we discuss today,” Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder said. “To be sure, many factors have led to the disproportionate representation of racial and ethnic minorities throughout the federal death penalty process. Nevertheless, no one reading this report can help but be disturbed, troubled, by this disparity.”

States executed 4,400 people from 1930 to 1999, according to the Justice Department, compared with 33 federal executions since 1930.

As of the end of 1998, there were 3,433 people with death sentences in the states, compared with 19 people with pending federal executions, the study said.

Legislation approved by Congress in 1994 and 1996 added more than 40 new offenses to the list of capital crimes.

Ms. Reno imposed a tighter review of death cases in 1995, requiring United States attorneys to submit to the Justice Department’s headquarters all cases for which the death penalty is an option. Capital punishment can be pursued only with the approval of Ms. Reno and a panel of senior officials. The data released today, however, showed that defendants from minorities make up the bulk of those cases that appear on Ms. Reno’s desk.

Ms. Reno said an even broader study was required to determine whether “bias” played a role in the system. She called for a study of the problem by outside experts, and said Mr. Holder would lead a review of homicide cases handled by states versus those handled by the federal government.

The other findings in the study included these:

  • United States attorneys in 49 of the country’s 94 judicial districts submitted cases that were eligible for the death penalty to the Justice Department since 1995. Ten of the 49 districts submitted recommendations in favor of the death penalty. About 40 percent of the 682 death-penalty cases submitted for review came from five of the United States attorney districts.
  • The victims of those who faced the prospect of the federal death penalty were more likely to be black than white. Of the 894 victims involved in cases where the death penalty was considered, 53 percent were black, 31 percent were white, 13 percent were Hispanic and 3 percent were other groups.
  • Blacks were more likely to face the death penalty for interracial homicides than whites. Of the 177 defendants who faced the death penalty for killing a victim of another race since 1955, 55 percent were black, 25 percent were Hispanic, 11 percent were white and 8 percent were other.

David Bruck of the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project, a federally funded program to assist court-appointed lawyers in federal death penalty cases, praised Ms. Reno for collecting the facts but said the system was clearly flawed.
“No state in America, not Mississippi, not Texas, not South Carolina, has produced such a racially lop-sided death sentencing record as has the federal government,” Mr. Bruck said. “It’s obvious that the time for a moratorium on the federal death penalty has arrived.”

GRAPHIC: Chart: “Disparities in Federal Death Penalty”
A study by the Justice Department found wide racial and geographic disparities in the number of death penalty cases that U.S. attorneys submitted to the attorney general for review since 1995, and how often the U.S. attorney recommended the death penalty in those cases. [see DPIC’s summary of the report]

Map shows the number of death penalty cases submitted for review, by state.