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Death Row Mostly Black

Death- sentence rate is 40% higher, study says!

by Joseph R. Daughen Philly Daily News Staff Writer

A study of how capital punishment is imposed in Philadelphia concludes that blacks are sentenced to death substantially more often than other defendants convicted of first-degree murder.

The study analyzed a "large sample of the murders which were eligible for the death penalty" between 1983 and 1993, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, the anti-capital punishment group which sponsored the project.

The size of the sample was not disclosed, but the study said the researchers "screened hundreds of factors" that could influence the likelihood of a death sentence.

Using the same "aggravating factors" prosecutors are supposed to use when deciding whether to seek a death sentence, the researchers determined which accused murderers should have been eligible for capital punishment, the study said. "The rate at which black defendants were sentenced to death was nearly 40 percent higher than the rate for other eligible defendants," the study said.

The principal researchers were David Baldus, a University of Iowa law professor, and statistician George Woodworth, who have collaborated before on works that dealt with the discriminatory application of the death penalty.

A second study sponsored by the center found that minority defendants may be sentenced to death more frequently because the vast majority of district attorneys are white men.

In the 38 states with death penalty laws, the study said, 1,794 prosecutors were white, 22 were black and 22 were Hispanic. It pointed to comments made in a training tape by a former Philadelphia assistant district attorney, Jack McMahon.

The tape shows McMahon advising young prosecutors to keep certain blacks -- "young black women" and "blacks from low-income areas" -- off murder juries.

That tape was made public last year by District Attorney Lynne Abraham -- a strong proponent of the death penalty -- when McMahon ran against her, unsuccessfully, as the Republican candidate for DA.

Currently, 215 defendants are on Death Row in Pennsylvania, more than half from Philadelphia.

While blacks make up about 14 percent of the state's population, they constitute 61 percent of those on Death Row.

There are 132 blacks under death sentence, 71 whites, 10 Hispanics and two Asians. `A thumb on the scales of justice . . . ' by Columnist Elmer Smith, Philly Daily News.

A casual reading of the numbers tells you what you already know: You are far more likely to be sentenced to death in America, especially in Philadelphia, if you are black, Hispanic or poor.

That fact alone does not move the U.S. Supreme Court, which has ruled that even clear patterns of race and class discrimination in a state's administration of capital punishment are not enough to set aside a death penalty.

It's a reality that most Americans regard with a shrug. Doesn't take much analysis to conclude that one reason you see more minorities and poor people on Death Row is that there are more of them amongst the ranks of violent criminals.

But even the most ardent supporters of capital punishment may be outraged by the blatant injustices detailed in a study to be released tomorrow by the Death Penalty Information Center. It's titled "The Death Penalty in Black & White: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Decides."

This study shows that, even when you compare criminals with similar backgrounds who commit similarly aggravated murders, blacks and Hispanics have a far greater chance of going to Death Row.

Nowhere is this disparity more striking than in Philadelphia, where most of the research was done. The researchers claim a black or Hispanic defendant in Philadelphia is 40 percent more likely than a white defendant to receive a death sentence.

When you consider figures showing that defendants whose victims were white were four times more likely to receive a death penalty than defendants with similar backgrounds whose victims were black, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that our criminal-justice system places less value on black lives, be they defendants or victims.

The Philadelphia study, done by law professor David Baldus and statistician George Woodworth results from a sampling of the murders that rendered the killers eligible for the death penalty between 1983 and 1993.

Eligibility was determined by the list of aggravating circumstances that must be present for a case to be considered for death-penalty prosecution. "More than half of the death sentences rendered in Pennsylvania are cases from Philadelphia, a city with only 14 percent of the state's population," the study notes. "Eighty-three percent of those on Death Row from Philadelphia are African-American."

A second study in the report by Professor Jeffrey Pokorak and researchers at St. Mary's University Law School in Texas details a pattern of race-of-victim and race-of-defendant bias, and concludes that the fact that 98 percent of all chief prosecutors are white is a factor in the unequal administration of death-penalty justice.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-death penalty group which financed the studies, said the research confirms that the death penalty is as arbitrary in its application today as it was in 1972 when the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional.

"This is a sophisticated study that virtually proves that being black or hispanic is often a deciding factor in who lives or dies," Dieter said. "It's a thumb on the scales of justice in America."

Americans, including about 50 percent of black Americans, are for the death penalty according to most polls. But they get uncomfortable in a hurry when forced to confront the reality that the criminal justice system is weighted in ways that make dark skin and modest means an aggravating circumstance sometimes punishable by death.

When we can no longer cling to the belief that the people who get the death penalty are more deserving of it than those who don't, support for the death penalty wanes. But nothing shakes our faith as much as the chance that innocent people will die.

A publication this year by the United States Justice Department, entitled "Convicted by Juries, Exonerated by Science," details 28 cases of men who served a total of 197 years, including three who spent more than 25 years on death row before DNA tests established their innocence.

You may choose to ignore a study financed by an anti-death penalty advocacy group. But this is an official research report of the U.S. Justice Department with a foreword by Janet Reno and corroborating testimonies by eight deputy district attornies, police chiefs, forensic scientists and law professors.

I oppose the death penalty, whether the defendant is James Earl Ray or Mumia Abu Jamal. But if I were for it, I'd have to know that it was applied equally and that no innocent person would be executed in my name.

PHILLY DAILY NEWS - June 3, 1998
© Copyright 1998 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.
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