U.S.: No racial bias in federal death penalty cases
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A Justice Department report examining federal prosecutors' handling of death penalty cases has found no intentional racial or ethnic bias, CNN has learned.
Sources told CNN the report's conclusions, in effect, reject arguments by capital punishment opponents, who this week called on President Bush to halt federal executions because they say death sentences are disproportionately imposed on members of minority groups.
The report, containing new data compiled and analyzed by the Justice Department, will be made public whether or not a federal judge in Colorado orders a stay of next week's scheduled federal execution of convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, Justice sources said.
If McVeigh's June 11 execution is delayed, the June 19 execution of convicted murderer and drug kingpin Juan Raul Garza is set to become the first federal execution in nearly 40 years.
Garza filed a clemency petition two weeks ago asking Bush to commute his sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The request cites "unequal application of the federal death penalty along racial and geographic lines, and the procedural safeguards that Mr. Garza was denied in the sentencing phase of his trial."
The expected announcement that clemency for Garza has been rejected could come soon from the White House, or from Attorney General John Ashcroft, who is scheduled to appear before the House Judiciary Committee at 2 p.m. Wednesday. Congressional sources said they expect Ashcroft to be questioned closely about the McVeigh case and related federal death penalty issues during his appearance at the oversight hearing.
Monday, advocates of a federal moratorium on executions sent a letter to Bush calling for him to stop the scheduled execution of Garza. Their letter cited the racial and geographical disparities in the implementation of the penalty, which were indicated in the Justice Department's preliminary report on the issue. That report was released by then-Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, a Clinton administration official.
"Nearly 70 percent of federal capital defendants are black or Hispanic, and less than one-third of the states are responsible for over half of the capital prosecutions in the federal system," their letter said.
However, officials familiar with the latest Justice report say it will show that the decisions on seeking the death penalty result not from racial bias, but from a variety of local or regional factors, including some beyond the control of federal prosecutors.
Sources told CNN the report will show that varying state laws, the decisions of individual state prosecutors, and the sharply different types of serious criminal cases handled by U.S. Attorney's offices around the country will be cited as reasons that help account for the disparities cited in the earlier report.
The Ashcroft Justice Department has been reviewing three aspects of the capital case issue, all of which former Attorney General Janet Reno called for in a statement last September.
The results of the three Justice Department actions will be released together, the sources said.
The Department examined the factors used to decide which homicide cases are taken into the federal system when there is joint state and federal jurisdiction and to identify ways to improve how such decisions are made across the country.
Secondly, U.S. Attorney's offices submitted available data on about 200 additional capital eligible cases which did not have to be submitted for the preliminary review last year. The additional information was intended to allow a better understanding of the entire pool of capital-eligible defendants in the federal system over the past five years.
Thirdly, the Department's National Institute of Justice has solicited research proposals from outside experts to study the reasons why, under existing standards, homicide cases are directed to the state or federal systems, and charged either as capital cases or non-capital cases. The proposals are also intended to study the factors which account for the present geographic pattern of submissions by the U.S. Attorney's offices.
A top Democratic congressional source who learned of the expected release of the report told CNN the conclusions are likely to prompt some lawmakers to complain the Ashcroft Justice Department had failed to follow through on Reno's plans to examine the death penalty issue.
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