WASHINGTON, Sept. 12--The first Justice Department review of the federal death penalty since it was reinstated in 1988 has found glaring racial and geographic disparities in the cases federal prosecutors recommend for capital punishment, according to administration officials.
The findings, which the Justice Department plans to release on Tuesday, seem certain to add fuel to the passionate debate over the death penalty.
Minorities accounted for 74% of the cases in which federal prosecutors asked the Justice Department for approval to pursue the death penalty since 1995, according to officials familiar with the report. African-American defendants accounted for 44% of the recommendations from local prosecutors, according to an administration official.
A small number of all 93 U.S. attorneys accounted for about 40% of the cases recommended for the death penalty. By contrast, 40 of the largely autonomous, presidentially appointed prosecutors have not recommended the death penalty for a single case since 1995.
The disproportionate number of minority and especially black prisoners on federal death row has long been apparent. But the Justice Department study is the first official review to systematically examine potential causes for the discrepancies. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno plans to recommend further research into how federal prosecutors choose cases for the death penalty, said an administration official.
Since a major expansion of the crimes eligible for the federal death penalty took effect in 1995, the Justice Department has established a screening process before prosecutors seek capital punishment.
Each death penalty prosecution must be reviewed first by a Justice Department panel in Washington and personally approved by Reno. Prosecutors must submit for approval each case for which a death sentence is possible, along with a recommendation on whether to pursue capital punishment or a life sentence instead.