New York Times
September 12, 2000
New York Times
Pervasive Disparities Found in the Federal Death Penalty
By RAYMOND BONNER and MARC LACEY
WASHINGTON -- In the first comprehensive review of the federal death penalty since it was reinstated in 1988, the Justice Department has found significant racial and geographical disparities, say officials who have seen the report.
In 75 percent of the cases in which a federal prosecutor sought the death penalty in the last five years, the defendant has been a member of a minority group, and in more than half of the cases, an African-American, according to the report, which officials said the Justice Department would release on Tuesday.
"It's troubling," said an administration official who has reviewed the data. "The president has expressed concern about the problem, and this backs that up." Another administration official described the report as "disturbing."
They added that on Tuesday, Attorney General Janet Reno is to announce more studies of the administration of the death penalty.
Reflecting a lack of geographic uniformity in the application of federal capital punishment, the Justice Department has found that a handful of the 93 United States attorneys account for about 40 percent of the cases sent to the Justice Department for review, according to officials.
On the other hand, about 20 United States attorneys did not file a single death penalty case since 1995. Since there are more than 40 crimes for which the federal death penalty is a potential punishment, the lack of cases from those jurisdictions raised the question of the uniform application of death penalty prosecutions.
Officials said that the report was a compilation of about 400 pages of data, and that it contained almost no analysis. Justice Department officials were still writing the report's introduction late this evening, officials said.
The report is expected to increase calls for a moratorium on the federal death penalty. The American Bar Association, which does not take a position for or against the death penalty, sent a letter to President Clinton on May 2 asking him to impose an executive moratorium pending a thorough review of the federal capital punishment system. An association official said today that Mr. Clinton had not responded.
In February, Senator Russell B. Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, called on President Clinton and Ms. Reno to suspend federal executions. In April, he and Representative Jesse L. Jackson Jr., Democrat of Illinois, introduced legislation calling for a national death-penalty moratorium.
The bulk of the Justice Department report has been given to lawyers for Juan Raul Garza, who is scheduled to be executed on Dec. 12. Mr. Garza was convicted in 1993 in Brownsville, Tex., of three drug-related murders.
He was originally scheduled to be executed on Aug. 5, but President Clinton granted him a reprieve so that his lawyers could use new clemency rules drafted by the Justice Department for capital cases. His lawyers expect to file that clemency request on Tuesday.
While a death penalty for at least some federal crimes has been on the books since 1988, it has yet to be carried out. The last federal execution was 37 years ago, when Victor Feguer was hanged in Iowa for kidnapping and killing a doctor.
After the Supreme Court declared in 1972 that the death penalty, as it was then being applied, was unconstitutional, states quickly adopted laws that the court upheld.
In 1988, Congress adopted what became known as the "drug
kingpin statute," which permitted a death penalty against an
individual found guilty of committing murder as part of a larger
In 1994, Congress enacted the Federal Death Penalty Act, which greatly expanded the crimes for which a defendant could be executed. They range from murder of the president to large-scale drug trafficking even when no one is killed and include drive-by murders, sexual abuse resulting in death, murder during a bank robbery, carjacking and destruction of an airplane, train or motor vehicle resulting in death.
Before federal prosecutors may seek the death penalty, they
need the approval of the Justice Department. In January 1995,
Attorney General Reno, wanting to insure uniformity in the
application of the federal death penalty, adopted procedures
that require United States Attorneys to file memoranda in cases
where the death penalty is an option. They must also include
their recommendation on whether or not to seek it.
Ms. Reno also set up a special committee to review every case.
There have been 682 submissions,, according to the report. About 40 percent of the submissions were filed by five jurisdictions: Puerto Rico; the Eastern District of Virginia; Maryland; and the Eastern and Southern districts of New York.
Puerto Rico and Virginia recommended the death penalty most
frequently, while the United States Attorneys in the two New
York districts, which cover New York City and its outlying
areas, recommended the penalty in only a few cases.
Among the United States attorneys' office which have not submitted any cases is Alaska, which Justice Department officials found puzzling because the state has one of the nation's higher homicide rates.
But Alaska does not have the death penalty, which suggested
to some officials that United States attorneys were influenced
by the local attitudes toward capital punishment.
The report also shows that United States attorneys who have most frequently recommended seeking the death penalty are from states with a high number of executions, including Virginia, Texas and Missouri.
In 80 percent of the cases submitted by United States attorneys for review, the defendant was an ethnic minority. But officials said that Ms. Reno's review process has reduced the apparent racial bias.
In the 682 cases she reviewed in which the defendant was white, she authorized the death penalty 38 percent of the time; when the defendant was black, she authorized the death penalty 25 percent of the time. United States attorneys recommended the death penalty in 183 cases, and Ms. Reno authorized it in 159 cases.
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