Racism On Federal Death Row Exposed
By: Mike Stark
The death penalty is racist.
That was the official conclusion of a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) review of the federal death penalty system released in September. The study shows that the federal death penalty is used disproportionately against minorities, especially African Americans — and that it is applied in a geographically arbitrary way, with some states, like Virginia and Texas, accounting for a large share of death penalty prosecutions.
According to DOJ figures, nearly 80 percent of inmates on federal death row are Black, Hispanic or from another minority group. Minorities account for 74 percent of the cases in which federal prosecutors seek the death penalty.
These statistics prompted calls for a halt on federal executions from a number of organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union. And Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold and Illinois Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. introduced federal moratorium legislation.
“This is a problem!” Jackson said. “You escape the federal death penalty based on your race and residence. If you’re an African American in Texas who commits a crime that could warrant the federal death penalty, you get it. If you’re white in New York City, you probably don’t.”
The DOJ review was the latest of several studies to demonstrate the racism and arbitrariness of the death penalty.
As Feingold poined out, “The same serious flaws in the administration of the death penalty that have plagued the states also afflict the federal death penalty. All Americans agree that whether you die for committing a federal crime should not depend arbitrarily on the color of your skin or randomly on where you live.”
The bulk of the federal death row population was sentenced to death in the wake of President Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, which dramatically expanded the number of crimes punishable by death at the federal level.
At the present time, there are 19 people awaiting a death sentence in the federal system: thirteen are Black, four are white, one is Hispanic and one belongs to another minority group.
Earlier this year, Clinton was forced to halt the planned federal execution of Juan Raul Garza and order a review of the federal death penalty. Garza was set to be the first federal death row prisoner executed since 1963. But Garza’s lawyers asked the administration to update clemency procedures, so Clinton had to postpone the execution.
From the moment the DOJ report was released in September, the Clinton administration scrambled to appear concerned about its conclusions. But Clinton wasn’t concerned enough to enact a federal moratorium. Attorney General Janet Reno also admitted that the study illustrates the need for further analysis — but said she didn’t see the need for a federal moratorium.
So, despite the questions about the federal death penalty, two federal prisoners are set to die by lethal injection. Garza’s execution date has been reset for December 12. And David Hammer is due to be put to death November 15 in Terre Haute, Indiana. Until recently, Hammer, who is white, had waived all rights to an appeal, but is now seeking clemency from President Clinton. He changed him mind after a steady stream of people visited him in order to convince him to fight for his life, including Garza’s attorney. If Hammer’s execution takes place, he would be the first federal prisoner executed in 37 years.
The startup of federal executions will affect people no matter where they live — even those lucky enough to be in jurisdictions without the death penalty. In places like Washington, D.C., and West Virginia, federal prosecutors continue to overrule local standards and impose the death penalty on defendants charged with federal crimes — despite sentiment against the death penalty displayed through ballot referendums and other means.
The injustice of the federal death penalty is one more reason why we need a national moratorium on capital punishment. Nothing short of a comprehensive ban on executions, like the one imposed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972, can begin to address the injustice of the death penalty.
Moratorium Now! Abolition Next!