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ACLU Says Federal Death Penalty Prosecutions Racially Biased

By: Bob Williams

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) alleged that racial disparities exist surrounding the implementation of the federal death penalty (FDP). They claim that United States Attorney Generals (AG) Reno, Ashcroft and Gonzales seek the FDP for men of color at a higher rate where White victims are involved. The ACLU suggested specific studies and legislative changes to prove their allegations and to eliminate racial bias in future FDP determinations.
In 1972 the United States Supreme Court declared Georgia's death penalty statute unconstitutional, effectively reversing all death sentences nationwide. By 1976, however, the Court had approved a somewhat narrow version of the statute and states began to pursue the death penalty once again. The first FDP prosecuted after the revision involved Ronald Chandler in 1991. His death sentence was subsequently commuted by President Bill Clinton due to doubt of Chandler's guilt. The ACLU's Capital Punishment Project and Racial Justice Program suggested that since then "the government has proceeded with federal death prosecutions at an ever accelerating pace" and that the majority of death row prisoners and modern executions involve "men of color." In 1993, six African Americans were sentenced to death under the FDP. Their executions were scheduled for May of 2006, but were stayed because of constitutional challenges to the lethal injection protocol. The only three executions under the FDP since 1976 were Timothy McVeigh (White) in 2001, Juan Garza (Latino) in 2001, and Louis Jones (African American) in 2003.
The ACLU claimed that a 2000 United States Department of Justice (DOJ) study revealed that almost half of White prisoners dodged death sentences via plea bargains but that only one quarter of Black and just over a quarter of Hispanic prisoners were afforded similar deals. DOJ Capital Case Review Committee member and federal prosecutor Rory Little allegedly credited the "racially disparate capital punishment statistics" to "the exercise of leniency" and the federal prosecutor's discretion. A follow up report by the DOJ claimed that the allegations of racially discriminate plea bargaining were unwarranted because not everyone took the pleas offered them. The ACLU claimed "there is no reason to believe" the DOJ's reasoning and that they had "not come forth with any evidence" to support their position. The ACLU asserted that various state statistics show the racial disparity of executions based on the victims' race and that the FDP entertained such practices, claiming that AG Reno and Ashcroft authorized the FDP in 32 to 36 percent of cases where the victim was White and AG Gonzales’s authorization rate under the same circumstances was 42 percent. It was maintained that the AG's cumulative authorization average in White victim cases was 35 percent compared to an otherwise 19 percent, posing an 84 percent greater risk of death for perpetrators of crimes with White victims. The ACLU further claimed that people of color represent "more than half" of the modern FDP prosecutions which reflects disparities raising "serious questions."
In an attempt to resolve the alleged disparities, the ACLU proposed that Congress: (1) implement an immediate moratorium on federal executions and prosecutions; (2) fund a thorough study of the federal death penalty and it's racial disparities; (3) enact a federal racial justice act permitting capital defendants to use statistical evidence as proof of racial bias; and (4) enact legislation requiring the DOJ to provide regular information about the implementation of the FDP, including statistical data about the race of victims and defendants in cases submitted and recommended for capital prosecutions. Source: ACLU article "The Persistent Problem of Racial Disparities in the Federal Death Penalty" July 6, 2007.

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