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Task force: Death penalty bias unclear

Race may be a factor, but more study is urged to determine whether blacks are at a disadvantage.

By JO BECKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- There is insufficient evidence to conclude that race matters in determining who gets sentenced to death, a task force set up by Gov. Jeb Bush has concluded.

In a report to be released Monday, the Capital Cases Task Force concluded that previous studies showing that racial bias does exist are outdated and may have relied on flawed methodology. It found no evidence to support a death penalty moratorium.

However, the group did decide that further study is warranted and recommended that the Legislature finance one. The scope and length of the study would be determined by a committee of experts in death penalty litigation to be appointed by the governor, the Legislature and the state Supreme Court.

The group also recommended that the Legislature set up an information clearinghouse on race and the death penalty at Florida A&M University.

"What we found is that the studies so far have been too simplistic and didn't have enough controls," said task force member Reginald Brown, Bush's deputy general counsel. "You can't make sound public policy based on anecdotes and bad studies."

Brown said Bush has yet to see the recommendations and would make up his own mind. But some say there already is enough evidence to take action.

"This sounds like a stall to me -- this issue has already been studied to death," said Leon Russell, the immediate past president of the state NAACP.

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. Of the 368 inmates who were on death row at the end of last year, five whites awaited execution for killing a black person. Since capital punishment began in 1769, Florida has never executed a white person for killing a black person.

Task force member Charles Morton, an assistant state attorney in Broward County, said he did hear some statistics that suggested that the race of the victim plays a role in death sentences. But he voted to study the issue more because he said raw numbers don't take into account such things as the fact that homicides tend to be intraracial.

Neal Dupree, a task force member who represents death row inmates, said he thought it was "pretty clear" that bias existed. But, he added, "at least the task force is interested in finding out more."

The task force's other recommendations included allowing defense lawyers to question potential jurors privately about possible racial bias; having judges advise jurors they may not consider race, gender or ethnicity in their deliberations; asking state attorneys and public defenders to do their best to recruit and train minority attorneys to handle capital cases; and encouraging the commissions that nominate judges to nominate more minorities.

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