DOJ: Death Sentences Racially Biased

Yet another study has confirmed that the death penalty is riddled with racial bias. A federal study ordered by Attorney General Janet Reno found that blacks make-up nearly half of those condemned to death by federal courts. Whites make-up about one-quarter, and Latinos one fifth of those slapped with death sentences. Though no federal death sentence has been carried out since 1963, the ranks of those on federal death rows are growing, and most of them are minority. At present two-thirds of the 21 prisoners under federal death sentence are black or Latino.

There's also the real danger that convicted murderer Juan Raul Garza could be the first since 1963 to be executed. Clinton gave him a reprieve in August in order to use revised Justice Department procedures to appeal for presidential clemency. He's not likely to give him another. The only hope for Garza and the other condemned men on federal death rows is a moratorium.

Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold and Illinois Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. have also introduced legislation in Congress for a national moratorium. Polls now show that more Americans than in the past decade oppose capital punishment, and a majority say that DNA testing should be available to all prisoners. Yet even with the smoking gun proof that the death penalty is a virtual legal racial license there's hardly any certainty that Clinton will halt federal executions. There's even less reason to expect the Republican-controlled Congress to back Jackson and Feingold's bill.

There are two disturbing reasons why they are scared to take action on the death penalty. One is publicly stated: fear of crime. Even though crime figures are way down, the fear of crime isn't. That fear is fueled by high-profile shooting rampages, a crime-gorged media that stuffs the public with mega-doses of crime and violence stories, politicians who pander to crime fears to get votes, and a Supreme Court that still flatly rejects any reconsideration of the death penalty.

The other far more frightening reason why the death penalty is still alive and well is privately whispered: race. The death penalty has always been white America's ultimate legal weapon against black men accused of violent acts (mostly against whites).

According to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund which has meticulously tracked the obscene racial disparity in the death penalty for decades, between 1930 and 1996, more than half of all those executed have been African-Americans. When the crime (or accusation) is rape, the death penalty has almost always been exclusively reserved for blacks. Of the 453 men executed for rape since 1930, 405 have been black.

Nearly all of them were executed in the South. They were arrested and convicted on the flimsiest evidence, usually no more than the word of a white woman. At the same time, not one white man received the death penalty for raping a black woman. There is no official record in any Southern state of a black man ever being executed for raping a black woman. The victims of all but 44 of the blacks executed in the South from 1930 through 1984 were white.

Not much has changed over the years. A black is still eleven times more likely to get the death penalty then a white when the victim is white. At present nearly half of those currently sitting on the nation's death rows are black. And that number has remained steady for three decades.

The only real change in the top heavy racial make-up of death row prisoners is the jump in the number of Latinos awaiting execution. In Texas and California, the runaway leaders in the number of prisoners on death row, a significant number of the condemned are Latinos. A recent report from the Leadership Council on Civil Rights revealed that Latinos have outstripped blacks as the fastest growing imprisoned group in America. The same glaring racial bias that insures many black men wind up on death row also ensnares Latinos.

The federal study is welcome news to those who have long rightly contended that the death penalty is a terribly racially warped punishment reserved for blacks and Latinos. The ball is squarely in Clinton and Congress's court. They should heed the study, do the legally and morally right thing, and get the federal government out of the death penalty business. And they should do it now.

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