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Fed Death Penalty Biased

In 1988 federal law was amended to allow for the execution of drug dealers who committed murder in the furtherance of their drug enterprises. Since the law came into effect the Justice Department has sought the death penalty in 37 cases. Of the 37 defendants 33, or 89%, just happen to be black or Hispanic. of the six actually convicted and sentenced to die, three are black, one is Hispanic, and two are white. These figures were reported by congressman Don Edwards (D. Calif.) who chairs the house judiciary committee. Before seeking the death penalty federal prosecutors must first obtain the approval of the attorney general.

Between 1930 and 1963, when the federal government last murdered someone with judicial sanction, 85% of its victims were white and 15% were black. Currently state death rows tend to be about 40% black, 58% white, 7.6% Hispanic and less than two percent Native and Asian Americans. Critics of the death penalty have long cited the racial disparity in how the death penalty is actually administered as one of the reasons to oppose it. Not surprisingly, this bias is showing itself in federal death penalty prosecutions as well. Statistics are not kept showing the wealth or poverty of those convicted to death but for the most part death row prisoners tend to be poor regardless of race.

At the end of 1992, the last year for which statistics are available, there were 2,575 prisoners under sentence of death in 34 states and the federal prison system. In 1992, 13 states executed 31 people. That more than doubled the 14 executed in 1991.

The Clinton administration is currently seeking to expand the federal death penalty. Because of this study Edwards is seeking an amendment to allow death row prisoners to use statistics to challenge their sentences as being racially biased and to be provided with competent counsel. The attorney general's office denied any racial bias in its use of the death penalty.

Amnesty International (AI), the human rights group, has called on Clinton to appoint a commission on executions, and halt them while the matter is being studied. In it's letter to Clinton AI says there is ample evidence to show that death sentences are disproportionately imposed on the poor, minorities, retarded and mentally ill and on those without adequate legal counsel. Clinton has not yet responded to AI's letter. Given his past track record as governor of Arkansas where he never granted clemency to any death row prisoners and during his presidential campaign oversaw the murder of Ricky Ray Rector, a mentally retarded black man, it is unlikely he will do so.

Sources: Seattle Times, March 16, 1994 and Corrections Digest, Jan. 26, 1994.

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