Death row inmates lack champions in Congress


WASHINGTON -- Death row murderers find few champions among those who get elected for a living.

To a politician, sticking up for a killer is a no-win proposition.

The Racial Justice Act, however, seemed to be an exception to this rule.

The act, part of the House version of the Crime Bill now before Congress, would allow condemned killers to escape death if they could show through statistical analysis that their sentences were the result of racial bias.

And many in the House, especially the Congressional Black Caucus, thought this was only just.

But killers are relatively easy to defend when talked about in the abstract. Eventually, however, specific prisoners would start using the act and they would become very real.

And politicians would find themselves having championed the man who raped and strangled a pregnant woman or shot a cop in the face or dropped a baby in a pot of boiling water.

Besides, the Crime Bill contained huge goodies: 100,000 more police officers for the streets, a ban on assault weapons and billions of dollars in pure pork.

And when the Senate indicated it did not want the Racial Justice Act and would fight it, how many in the House really wanted to see the entire Crime Bill go down to defeat over a bunch of murderers?

So it was fairly easy for the White House, which had remained "aggressively neutral" on the act for most of its legislative history, to turn its back on it last week.

And it was fairly easy to persuade some members of Congress, even those who continued to support it publicly, to desert it privately.

Rep. Kweisi Mfume, the Maryland Democrat who leads the Congressional Black Caucus, was an early and active supporter of racial justice.

But he had no trouble watering it way down it in an attempt to get White House approval for it.

In a series of private meetings, Mfume offered four compromises. Three were fairly minor: two dealt with language changes, and one limited the racial justice appeal process to just one appeal per prisoner.

But the fourth was a major blow to those now facing execution: The act was supposed to apply retroactively to everyone currently on death row. But Mfume was willing to drop that and make it apply only to future criminals.

If Mfume really thought, however, that men and women had unfairly been condemned to die because of their race, how could he turn his back on the thousands currently on death row? The Racial Justice Act wasn't merely about getting people jobs or housing that they had been unfairly denied; it was literally about life and death.

In any case, the White House rejected the deal.

Mfume was angry, but mainly because he felt that the White House had not treated him with the proper respect.

"If the White House was going to reject [the compromise]," Mfume told me shortly after it happened, "it could have told me five weeks ago!"

After Mfume failed, Rep. Don Edwards, D-Calif., offered to gut the act even more dramatically: Forget about the prisoners in state prisons and apply racial justice only to federal crimes.

This compromise was truly staggering: Of the 2,848 people awaiting execution in America, only eight are in federal prisons.

True, with dozens of new federal crimes for which one could be given the death sentence (a much more popular part of the Crime Bill) these numbers were sure to grow. But they would always be tiny compared with those on state death rows.

And under the Edwards compromise, there would now be two forms of justice in America: Face execution in a federal prison and a showing of racial prejudice could save your life. Face execution in a state prison and it could not.

But even this compromise failed to move the White House. Lacking the 60 votes it would take to break a Senate filibuster on the measure, the White House declared racial justice substantially dead, talking instead about a "commission" and an "executive memo."

And by late last week, Mfume was already talking about the Racial Justice Act in symbolic terms.

"I am still hopeful," Mfume said, not sounding hopeful at all. "But even if we don't get the Racial Justice Act, at least we fought for something. We can look at what we've done and feel good."

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