Jewish World Review Feb. 20, 2003 / 18 Adar I, 5763

Edward I. Koch

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Death penalty=racism? Don't confuse them with the facts | Attorney General John Ashcroft has become a whipping boy for those who believe the time is near when the U.S. will abolish the death penalty and that attacks on the Attorney General will bring that day closer.

On February 9th, for example, The New York Times published a letter attacking Attorney General John Ashcroft for ordering U.S. Attorneys in New York and Connecticut to seek the death penalty in 12 cases where they had recommended otherwise. The letter stated, "Of the 12 defendants (in these cases), not one is white." The writer added, "But the most troubling aspect of the death penalty is not erratic application across the nation, but rather that members of minority groups are disproportionately sentenced to death."

I have written on this subject many times and knew the letter was factually wrong. Similar statements have been made time and time again by opponents of the death penalty. I do not believe these death penalty opponents intentionally misstate the facts. They simply believe in their hearts it must be so.

Here are the facts. Under federal law, the Attorney General is responsible for making the final decision on whether or not to seek the death penalty in a given case. Equal justice under law requires that standards for seeking the death penalty be consistent nationwide. According to a February 14 Times news article, a Department of Justice spokeswoman stated that when the Attorney General reviews a case, "he is reviewing the law and the facts of the cases so it's entirely race-neutral in terms of how it's reviewed by the Attorney General." The Times also reported that, according to the spokeswoman, "Mr. Ashcroft is not told a defendant's race or ethnicity when he reviews prosecutors' death penalty recommendations."

False attacks of racial discrimination were made against former Attorney General Janet Reno in 1994 when she authorized federal death penalty prosecutions against 37 defendants, all but four of whom were African-Americans or Hispanics. Almost everyone would concede that in and out of office, Reno has demonstrated maximum support for minority rights. But that did not prevent her from being assailed for her decisions in death penalty cases.

According to the 2000 census, 69.1 percent of the U.S. population is white, 12.1 percent is black, and 12.5 percent is Hispanic. Statistics tell the story. In 2001, the most recent year for which Justice Department figures are available, whites committed 33.4 percent of the murders in the U.S.; blacks committed 35.6 percent; those of unknown race committed 29.2 percent; and others 1.8 percent. The Department of Justice apparently does not issue separate figures for Hispanics.

The Department of Justice reports that in 2001, 66 people were executed nationwide: 48 were white representing 72.7 percent of the executed, l7 were black representing 25.8 percent; and, one was of indeterminate race, designated other representing l.5 percent. Based on the total number of murders committed by whites, one conclusion that could be drawn is that whites, not blacks, were disproportionately executed.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S. Department of Justice stated in a report that "blacks were over seven times more likely than whites to commit homicide in 2000." To satisfy a race-based test of proportionality, apparently advocated by death penalty opponents, more blacks would have to be executed based on the number of murders committed by blacks compared with those perpetrated by whites. Fortunately, the Constitution does not permit executions on a racial basis.

According to a January 24, 2003 ABC News poll of Americans, "When given a choice, 49 percent choose the death penalty and 45 percent choose life in prison." Thus, public support for the death penalty remains surprisingly strong despite the constant attacks and false statements of discrimination against blacks, the latest being that prosecutors discriminate against minorities in selecting defendants subject to the death penalty.

I believe the death penalty is justified in particularly egregious murders that shock the conscience of a civilized society. In such situations, it is both appropriate punishment and a deterrent when the execution takes place in a timely manner.

If the opponents of the death penalty were convinced there was no racial prejudice in carrying out the penalty, and that the penalty was humanely administered, would they change their minds? No. They would still oppose it, which is their right, and some would continue to ignore the facts.

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JWR contributor Edward I. Koch, the former mayor of New York, can be heard on Bloomberg Radio (WBBR 1130 AM) every Saturday from 9-10 am. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Edward I. Koch