Influential Voices from Diverse Walks of Life Cite Dramatic Racial and Geographic Disparities In Call For A Moratorium On Federal Executions

Former President Carter and Mrs. Carter Also Appeal To President To Declare Moratorium

Washington, D.C., November 21st, 2000 – As the U.S. Government prepares to carry out the first federal execution in thirty-seven years, a group of prominent Americans has called upon President Clinton to declare a moratorium on federal executions pending a review of the fairness of the process. In a letter delivered to the White House late yesterday, Citizens for a Moratorium on Federal Executions (CMFE) urged the President to act before December 12th, 2000; the date Juan Garza -- one of 21 federal death row inmates -- is scheduled to be executed. Among the diverse group are former White House and Justice Department officials as well as civil rights, civic and religious leaders and artists, a number of whom have worked closely with the President. It includes both opponents and supporters of the death penalty.

This appeal to President Clinton comes at time when public support for the death penalty is shrinking as doubts about its fairness and reliability mount, and as efforts are underway in many states to urge political leaders to follow the example of Governor Ryan of Illinois, who declared a moratorium earlier this year. "Whether one supports or opposes capital punishment, it is unacceptable to go forward with Juan Garza's execution in the face of serious and unresolved questions about the fairness of the federal death penalty process," said Yale Law School Dean Anthony Kronman, adding, "To carry out this execution despite the government's own evidence of racial and geographic disparities in the administration of the death penalty would compromise the integrity of our legal system and undermine the principle of equality that our laws seek to honor and protect."

In the letter the CMFE cites a recent Department of Justice survey that documents significant racial, ethnic and geographic disparities in the charging of federal capital cases. The survey revealed that among all the federal capital defendants against whom the Attorney General has authorized seeking the death penalty, 69% have been Latino and African American (18% and 51% respectively), while only 25% have been white.

The same survey exposes geographic disparities in the administration of the federal death penalty. In 16 states U.S. prosecutors obtain the authority to seek the death penalty in at least 50% of the federal capital cases that are submitted for review by the Attorney General. However, there are eight states where that rate is much lower, ranging from

8-30% and there are 21 states in which U.S. attorneys have either never requested or never received authorization to seek the death penalty. Among the eight states where U.S. Attorneys have submitted 20 or more cases for consideration, there is only one state – Texas – where the death penalty authorization rate exceeds 50%.

As the CMFE letter points out, “Mr. Garza is Hispanic and from Texas – two factors that appear to increase substantially the chances that the government will seek the death penalty in a potential capital case.”

When the survey was made public by the Department of Justice on September 12, Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder commented: “No one reading this report can help but be disturbed, troubled by this disparity.” Attorney General Janet Reno acknowledged that the survey shows “minorities are over-represented in the federal death penalty system.” She admitted that the Department could not explain the disparities and because of this “[a] n even broader analysis must therefore be undertaken to determine if bias does in fact play any role in the federal death penalty system.” The Attorney General has directed that further studies be conducted. “Today’s growing concerns about the fairness of the death penalty are not limited to the wrongful conviction of people who are innocent. It is also unconscionable to allow the execution of people who, but for their race or ethnicity, might never have been targets of capital prosecutions,” said Julian Bond, Chair of the Board of the NAACP and a member of the CMFE.

According to Elisabeth Semel, Director of the ABA Death Penalty Representation Project, the Justice Department report engendered concern in many quarters that it would be fundamentally unfair to proceed with any executions until a review of the system was completed, and a thorough public debate about its findings takes place. In the letter, the CMFE appeals to the President’s strong sense of justice: “Unless you take action, executions will begin at a time when your own Attorney General has expressed concern about racial and other disparities in the federal death penalty process. Such a result would be an intolerable affront to the goals of justice and equality for which you have worked during your presidency. Consequently, we urge you to put in place a moratorium until the Department of Justice completes its review of the federal death penalty process.”

In a related development, former President Jimmy Carter and Mrs. Carter authorized the release of excerpts of a letter, which was recently sent directly to President Clinton. It reads in part:

There is powerful evidence that the administration of the death penalty in the United States is fundamentally flawed. Renewing federal executions under these circumstances would undermine your lifelong commitment to equal justice at home. It also would diminish the United States’ moral authority abroad, including your consistent efforts to encourage other nations to improve their rule of law, administration of justice, and human rights record.
President and Mrs. Carter called upon the President to commute Mr. Garza’s sentence to life without the possibility of parole “and impose a moratorium on federal executions, as strongly recommended by the American Bar Association.”

CONTACTS: David Lerner (212) 260-5000; Caroline Simon (202) 637-6835

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