STUDIES: Racial and Geographic Disparities in the Federal Death Penalty

A new study published in the Washington Law Review addresses the racial and geographical disparities in the implementation of the federal death penalty. The study, conducted by G. Ben Cohen, Counsel for the Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans, and Robert J. Smith, Counsel for the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, concludes that the disparities in the federal death penalty may exist because federal cases do not use a county-level jury pool but instead employ a wider pool from the federal-district level, resulting in the dilution of minority representation in the jury pool. According to the authors, “Capital verdicts become separated from the moral judgments of the community when [there are] fewer minority group members in the jury pool.” They proposed utilizing a county-level jury pool as is done in state cases: “If federal capital juries come from the county where the offense occurred, then prosecutors are left to determine whether to seek the death penalty based on the relative federal interest in the crime (and not the prosecutorial interest to secure a death sentence by any means possible). This solution is also more democratic—the citizens most impacted by the effects of high crime, overly aggressive policing, or poor public policy are the decision-makers responsible for redressing those harms.”

(G. Ben Cohen and R. Smith, "The Racial Geography of the Federal Death Penalty," 85 Washington Law Review 425 (2010)).  See Race, Studies and the Federal Death Penalty.