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  Justice Study Finds No Racial Bias

By Karen Gullo
Associated Press Writer
Wednesday, June 6, 2001; 2:27 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON –– A Justice Department review of federal cases has concluded there is no evidence of racial bias in the application of capital punishment, Attorney General John Ashcroft said Wednesday.

The review was based on an analysis of nearly 900 death penalty cases and is a follow-up of a Justice Department study released last year that found wide racial and geographic disparities in the federal death penalty system.

"There is no evidence of racial bias in the administration of the federal death penalty," Ashcroft said in remarks prepared for a hearing on Capitol Hill.

"Our analysis has confirmed that black and Hispanic defendants were less likely at each stage of the department's review process to be subjected to the death penalty than white defendants," Ashcroft said.

Differences in state laws governing criminal cases, decisions by state prosecutors and geographical factors – not intentional racial bias – account for the fact that the majority of defendants facing federal death sentences are minorities, the study showed. Details of the findings were provided by an official who requested anonymity.

The study released last year showed that of 682 defendants charged with capital offenses between 1995 and 2000, 80 percent were minorities and 20 percent were white.

Ultimately during this period, 20 defendants were sentenced to death, of which 20 percent were white and 80 percent minorities.

The study also showed that only nine of the 94 U.S. attorney districts accounted for about 43 percent of all cases that prosecutors called for the death penalty. They were: Puerto Rico, the eastern district of Virginia, Maryland, the eastern and southern districts of New York, western Missouri, New Mexico, western Tennessee and northern Texas.

In arriving at their conclusions, Justice Department lawyers looked at all the cases in the original study, gathered information from U.S. attorneys and analyzed another 200 federal death penalty cases that were not part of the 2000 study, the official said.

The department found a similar ratio of minorities versus white defendants in the 200 new cases studied.

Based on results of the review, Ashcroft is satisfied that there's no intentional bias against minorities in the federal death penalty system, said the official.

Ashcroft does not oppose the death penalty, but said during his confirmation hearing that further study was needed to ensure that racial bias played no role in federal death sentencing.

Ashcroft also announced that he was changing federal death penalty protocols such that his approval would be required before a capitol charge may be dropped in the context of a plea bargain.

He also directed the National Institute of Justice to initiate a study of how death penalty cases are brought into the federal system.

Results of the review were being released as a federal judge in Denver refused to further delay execution of convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. He is scheduled to die Monday.

The review comes just 13 days before the scheduled execution of Juan Raul Garza, a 44-year-old Hispanic from Texas who was convicted of running a marijuana smuggling operations, killing one man and ordering the slayings of two others he thought were informants.

Former President Clinton delayed Garza's execution pending a review of the 2000 death penalty study. Garza's lawyers have asked President Bush to commute Garza's sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole, saying that without the results of the review, there's no telling whether his sentence was the result of bias against minorities.

Citizens for a Moratorium on Federal Executions, a group of religious, civil rights and political leaders, has asked Bush to put all federal death sentences on hold, saying there are serious questions about whether the death penalty is applied fairly.

The majority of the 20 inmates currently on federal death row are minorities.

Bush supports the death penalty; Texas executed 152 people while he was governor.

© Copyright 2001 The Associated Press

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