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Lethal injection approved

THE RACE ISSUE: Gov. Bush forms a task force to study the role of race in capital sentencing.

Electric chair’s end?

The race issue

Away from floor, little interest

How it works

By SYDNEY P. FREEDBERG and WILLIAM YARDLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 7, 2000


When it comes to who gets a death sentence, skin color matters. At least that's what the numbers suggest:

Never since capital punishment began in Florida in 1769 has the state executed a white person for killing an African-American.

Of Florida's 368 inmates on death row as of Dec. 10, only five whites await execution for killing a black person.

According to a 1991 study, the odds of a Florida death sentence for those who kill white people are about 3.4 times higher than for those who kill African-Americans.

On Thursday, as lawmakers approved a switch to lethal injection as Florida's chief form of execution, Democrats tried to add a provision that would allow accused murderers to argue that race is a factor in their cases.

The GOP-led Legislature rejected the measure. Gov. Jeb Bush, who also opposed the measure, established a 15-member task force to study the role of race in capital sentencing.

The task force also will address whether mentally retarded inmates should be condemned to die. Task force members are supposed to issue a report the week before the Legislature convenes for its regular session March 7.

"If this is an issue here," Bush said of the racial dimension of capital punishment, "I think we ought to look at it in a thoughtful way.

"Black victims may not be getting justice," Bush said.

Death penalty experts said Thursday that the governor was stating what has seemed evident for years: The death penalty is overwhelmingly imposed on people who commit crimes against whites. People who kill blacks are rarely sentenced to death.

"I am sick and tired of being studied," said House Democratic leader Les Miller, an African-American from Tampa. "You've been studying African-Americans since we came here on slave ships. We all know the justice system is not colorblind."

Despite numerous studies, experts said, little progress has been made in addressing disparities.

"The numbers vividly show race bias in the application of Florida's death penalty," said Michael Radelet, a University of Florida sociology professor who studies capital punishment.

In 1991, Radelet documented for the Florida Supreme Court that convicts who kill whites are much more likely to be sentenced to death than those who kill blacks. But the commission's recommendations to shore up fairness were ignored, Radelet said.

Among those recommendations was a proposal to ban overrides of jury recommendations in capital cases, so that if a jury recommended life, that recommendation was binding.

Florida's revived debate on the role of race in capital sentencing is part of a nationwide trend.

Nebraska and Illinois are examining possible disparities, and the issue has come up in New Jersey and South Carolina.

Legislation to help prevent death penalty bias has twice been passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, but was defeated each time in the Senate.

In 1998, Kentucky became the first state to pass a racial justice act after studies showed 100 percent of the state's death row inmates had been convicted of killing white people. The law allows defendants facing the death penalty to use statistics to accuse prosecutors of racial bias.

In the early days, capital punishment in Florida was fraught with discrimination. The racial debate goes back to 1769, when, according to historian Bernard Romans, the English governor sent a rebellious ethnic minority to the gallows during the New Smyrna uprising of Aug. 18, 1768. His crime: He killed a cow, a capital crime in England.

Like many states, statistics show Florida disproportionately executed black inmates. And from 1769 to 1972, when the Supreme Court banned capital punishment, not one white person was executed for killing a black person, Radelet said.

The Florida Legislature rushed to write a more equitable law. Ever since, it appears Florida's governors have been much more cognizant of race when signing death warrants.

When capital punishment resumed in Florida in 1979, Democratic Gov. Bob Graham signed his first warrant against a white man, John Spenkelink. Twenty years later, Republican Gov. Jeb Bush has signed four death warrants, all against white men.

Today, experts said, the pattern of racial bias may persist, but not in the race of the inmates. Of the 44 convicts executed since 1979, 16 have been black.

But the numbers suggest that disparities still exist in the race of the victims of those sentenced to death. Only five of the 44 executions in the modern era involved black victims. In all of those cases, the killer was black.

Since 1977, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, of nearly 600 convicts executed in America, only 11 whites have been executed for killing black people. Five of those occurred in South Carolina, two in Oklahoma, and one each in North Carolina, Missouri, Alabama and Virginia.

In Florida, whites make up the majority on death row, as they do in the state's general population. But black people are overrepresented among the condemned: They make up about 12 percent of the state's population, but about 35 percent of death row's.

Statistics compiled by Radelet show that of the 368 inmates on death row as of Dec. 10, only five are whites condemned for killing blacks. Six other whites were condemned for the serial killings of whites and blacks. And three other whites were sentenced to death for killing Hispanics.

Three of the five white men condemned for killing blacks committed their crimes in Duval County. One of the condemned white men killed a black police officer in Dade County.

Death penalty opponents also point out that there are 20 elected state attorneys in Florida, all white. Only one is a woman.

Thursday, Ocala-area State Attorney Brad King, who heads the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, was in Tallahassee partly to answer lawmakers' questions about the prosecution of capital cases.

But in an interview, King said he was unaware of statistics on the role of race in capital sentencing. He declined to discuss statistics in his judicial district.

And despite the numbers, the U.S. Supreme Court has not put much stock in the racial patterns of victims and their condemned killers.

One of the most sophisticated studies to date dealt with racial disparities in 2,400 criminal cases processed in Georgia. That study found that the odds of a death sentence when the victim was white were 4.3 times higher than when the victim was black -- even when controlling for variables that might make one case seem worse than another.

In a 1987 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Georgia's death penalty statute was constitutional despite statistics indicating racial bias does influence death sentences. The court acknowledged convicted cop killer Warren McCleskey's claim that killers of whites were far more likely to receive the death penalty than killers of blacks.

But that pattern of discrimination, the court said on a 5-4 vote, is not enough to overturn a death sentence. A defendant must be able to show he personally was discriminated against.

The study in the Georgia case was done by David Baldus, professor of law at the University of Iowa College of Law. Baldus cautioned Thursday that while the Florida numbers were "suggestive" of race-of-victim disparities, he couldn't reach a conclusion about the role of race until a statistical study is made.

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