- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 7, 2001

Attorney General John Ashcroft yesterday told a House committee that an extensive Justice Department investigation of federal prosecutions found no evidence of racial bias in the application of the death penalty.
Mr. Ashcroft, in sworn testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, said a review by department lawyers of 950 federal prosecutions actually found that black and Hispanic defendants were less likely to be sentenced to death than their white counterparts.
"There is no evidence of racial bias in the administration of the federal death penalty," he said, adding that the departments study — completed this week — confirmed a previous report by former Attorney General Janet Reno.
"The Reno study concluded, and our analysis has confirmed, that black and Hispanic defendants were less likely at each stage of the departments review process to be subjected to the death penalty than white defendants."
Mr. Ashcroft said the study was necessary to "ensure public confidence" and guarantee that the departments future enforcement of the federal death penalty statute was consistent "with high standards of fairness."
In a related matter, Mr. Ashcroft told Rep. Robert Wexler, Florida Democrat, that the department would investigate accusations of civil rights violations during the 2000 presidential election in Florida if any occurred.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, in a disputed report released this week to selected media, said it would seek a Justice Department investigation of what it called civil rights violations during the election.
The commission has not publicly released the document or voted on what to do with it.
"I will be pleased to get a copy of the report when it is released and to evaluate it," he said. "I will pledge that the Department of Justice will cooperate to seek to enforce the law and to assess compliance with the law in accordance with its responsibilities."
The death penalty study was released yesterday as the department prepared to execute Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and drug kingpin Juan Raul Garza — the first federal executions in 38 years. McVeigh is scheduled to die Monday. Garza, convicted of drug smuggling and murder, is set to be executed June 19.
Mr. Ashcroft told the committee that the finding of lower death penalty rates for blacks and Hispanics than whites held true for both "intraracial" cases those involving defendants and victims of the same race and ethnicity — and "interracial" cases, involving defendants and victims of different races.
According to the study, differences in state laws concerning criminal cases, decisions by state prosecutors and geographical factors — not intentional racial bias — accounted for the fact that the majority of defendants facing federal death sentences are minorities.
Of 21 inmates at the death-row unit at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., 14 are black, three are white, three are Hispanic and one is Asian.
Mr. Ashcroft said the study noted "a slight statistical disparity" in the treatment of plea agreements, and he has ordered a change in the departments death-penalty protocols to require prior approval by the attorney general before a capital charge can be dropped as part of a plea agreement.
The attorney general said the new protocol would give "greater consistency in all aspects of the application of the federal death penalty."
He also ordered the National Institute of Justice to begin a study to determine how death-penalty cases are brought to the federal system.
He also has told the NIJ to investigate the effectiveness of federal, state and local law enforcement in the investigation and prosecution of murder in America and to determine whether there is "sufficient accountability" in murder cases.
The committees ranking Democrat, John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, criticized Mr. Ashcroft for failing to release the departments death-penalty study to Democrats before making it public. He called the release "unfair," adding that the attorney generals "unilateral presentation" of the report before the panel "means nothing to me until we see it."

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