A national study released last month by the Rand Corp. found no evidence of racial bias in federal prosecutors’ decisions to seek the death penalty.
But according to death penalty experts, attention should instead be directed toward the wide racial divide among death row inmates at the state level.
“It’s a good thing they didn’t detect racial bias at the federal level, but on the state level we continue to be very concerned, especially when you consider that there are only 44 people on federal death row, compared with 3,300 in the states,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center.
“It’s not that the death penalty is in every way discriminatory,” he said. “It creeps in at times. And there are problems with race in society that help determine who commits crimes, and even who commits heinous crimes that are outside the scope of this study.”
Rob Warden, executive director of Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, said further studies and action is needed to address concerns about racial bias in state court systems.
Warden used Illinois as an example. “At the state court level, we found that the most relevant factor in Illinois death row cases is the race of the victim,” he said. “There have been such a small number of federal prosecutions that it’s fairly hard to draw the same number of conclusions.”
In January 2003, former Republican Gov. George Ryan commuted every death sentence in the state, citing concerns about racism for part of his decision. Under Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the moratorium has remained in place. But there have been hints from the camp of Judy Baar Topinka, Blagojevich’s challenger in the November gubernatorial race, that she would consider lifting the moratorium.
Monday’s study by the Santa Monica, Calif.-based think tank examined the files of 652 defendants charged with capital offenses between Jan. 1, 1995 and July 31, 2000. The report was conducted at the request of members of Congress and supported by a grant from the National Institute of Justice, which is part of the U.S. Department of Justice.
“The characteristics of the crime-not the racial characteristics of either the defendant or the victim-could be used to make very accurate prediction of whether federal prosecutors would seek the death penalty,” the report stated.
“We were surprised by how well we could predict the decision to seek the death penalty based on the nature of the crime,” said Rand’s Stephen Klein, a co-author of the report.
However, Warden said it was not unusual that race didn’t appear to be a factor in federal cases.
“At the federal level, you’re looking, for the most part, at murders in connection with narcotics transactions,” he said. “I didn’t expect race to be involved.”
Sarah Craft of the Maryland-based Equal Justice USA said the study should have examined whether race played a role at an earlier stage in the process.
“The surprise comes from the fact that this was the study they chose to do,” said Craft. “A more successful examination of whether the system is racially biased would have looked at what factors determine whether a federal prosecutor decides to investigate a murder case in the first place.”