Amnesty finds race factor in US death sentences

The Guardian (England), Apr.25, 2003
http://www.guardian.co.uk/
Julian Borger in Washington

Statistical evidence from the United States suggests that black defendants convicted of killing whites have been sentenced to death 15 times more often than white defendants convicted of killing blacks, according to a study published by Amnesty International yesterday.

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The survey, based largely on recent investigations carried out by individual states, suggests that race remains a powerful factor when American juries decide whether to send convicts to death row, but that the race of the victim is often more important than the race of the murderer.

According to the Amnesty report – entitled Death by discrimination: the continuing role of race in capital cases – blacks and whites have been the victims of murder in roughly equal numbers since 1976.

“Yet, 80% of the more than 840 people put to death in the USA since 1976 were convicted of crimes involving white victims, compared to the 13% who were convicted of killing blacks,” says the report. It went on to say that some 200 African-Americans were executed for the murder of white victims in the period: “15 times as many as the number of whites put to death for killing blacks, and at least twice as many as the number of blacks executed for the murder of other blacks.”

Concern over racial disparities in the imposition of the death penalty has led to a string of reviews in recent years, but the Bush administration has contested their findings. While governor of Texas, President Bush himself presided over a record number of executions.

The attorney general, John Ashcroft, has said there was “no evidence of racial bias” in federal death penalty cases, despite the conclusions of a study commissioned by his predecessor, Janet Reno, which found that 80% of defendants who faced capital charges in federal cases nationwide were members of minorities.

Since coming to office, Mr Ashcroft has overruled federal prosecutors 28 times, forcing them to pursue death sen tences in cases that prosecutors had initially decided did not merit them. Of these 28 defendants, 26 were from minorities.

The justice department said Mr Ashcroft was unaware of the race of the defendants when he reviewed their cases.

Kate Allen, Amnesty International’s UK director, said that if Mr Bush was truly committed to equal justice he should call an “immediate halt” to executions.

“At least one in five of African-Americans executed since 1977, and a quarter of the blacks put to death for killing whites, were tried in front of all-white juries,” she added.

George Kendall, a lawyer for legal defence fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, said the role of local prosecutors was even more important.

“The local district attorney in America has more power than any other elected official. He’s got no boss. He decides who to charge and how to charge them. [An] overwhelming number of DAs are white,” he said.

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