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Alarming disparities in death penalty cases


HERE'S A SHOCKER: A comprehensive study of the federal death penalty has exposed problems quite similar to those you'd find in many states.

Minorities are targeted more than whites. Some U.S. attorneys seek death whenever they can; others don't seek it at all.

It makes for a bizarre, hodgepodge application of what's supposed to be federal law -- and too often, the poor, the black and the disadvantaged suffer because of it.

Of course, there hasn't been a federal execution for nearly 37 years, so much of this disparity is academic.

But that could change.

The government is ever expanding the list of death-eligible federal crimes. And that list now includes such transgressions as large-scale drug trafficking and carjacking.

To sustain public support even from opponents of execution, the Justice Department has no choice but to inject some notion of fairness into the law.

The department's not-fully-analyzed study -- requested by Attorney General Janet Reno -- shows that since the federal death penalty was reinstated 11 years ago, about 40 percent of the requests for capital punishment came from a small number of the Justice Department's 93 U.S. attorneys. Conversely, about 20 prosecutors made no requests at all.

Three-quarters of the defendants in federal death-penalty cases are minorities. Most were African-American.

The report also suggests that most of the requests for the death penalty come from states with high numbers of executions under state law, including Virginia, Texas and Missouri.

Of the 682 requests for authorization to seek the death penalty, 40 percent came from just five jurisdictions: Puerto Rico, the Eastern District of Virginia; the Eastern and Southern districts of New York; and Maryland.

Are social will and political climate determining who will face execution?

It sure looks that way.

If that conclusion is borne out by further study, it is surely unacceptable.

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