White defendants are more likely than black defendants to work out plea bargains saving them from the death penalty in federal cases, according to an analysis of 146 cases prosecuted since Congress reinstated federal capital punishment in 1988.
An analysis of data collected by a private group that works with defense lawyers in federal cases comes as the Justice Department conducts its own study of geographic and racial disparities in the imposition of the death penalty.
Among federal cases in which the Justice Department decided to pursue the death penalty and that reached a courtroom on the issue, 60 percent of white defendants have avoided capital punishment through a negotiated settlement. Typically, those plea bargains result in life sentences or long prison terms but spare the life of the defendant.
By contrast, 41 percent of black defendants in those cases have reached such an agreement with prosecutors, according to an analysis of data collected by the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project, which tracks federal capital cases for federal public defender organizations.
Questions about the role of race in the imposition of the death penalty have been an enduring source of controversy. Many civil rights leaders and members of the African American community have expressed suspicions that subtle influences or outright discrimination lead the justice system to place a lower value on the lives of black defendants and victims. Surveys consistently show much lower levels of support for the death penalty among blacks than within other racial groups.
President Clinton signed a major expansion of the federal death penalty in 1994. His administration has overseen prosecution of most of the capital cases brought since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988.
But last month, Clinton voiced his concern at a White House news conference over "the disturbing racial composition" of the federal prison system's death row.
Of the 21 federal inmates awaiting execution, 13 are black, according to the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project. Four are white, among them Timothy J. McVeigh, who was convicted of carrying out the Oklahoma City bombing.
This month, Clinton ordered the postponement of the first federal execution in 40 years, which was scheduled for Aug. 5, until the Justice Department could establish clemency procedures and complete a review of racial and geographic disparities in death penalty cases.
"Plea bargain numbers alone can be misleading," said Justice Department spokesman Myron Marlin. "They do not show how often pleas are offered or the rates at which they were rejected or accepted.
"By just looking at the plea bargain numbers, one cannot tell the severity of the offense involved, the strength of the case or considerations affected by judicial rulings during the course of the trial."