The Federal Death Penalty

A Letter from Five Members of Congress June 30, 2000

The Honorable William J. Clinton
President of the United States of America
The White House
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President:

We write to urge you to suspend all federal executions to allow time for the creation of a national commission to review the fairness and accuracy of the administration of the federal death penalty. This would allow us to better ensure that innocent individuals are not being put to death as a result of the administration of the federal death penalty.

We understand that the Department of Justice has undertaken a review of the racial disparities in the prosecution, conviction and sentencing of those who commit crimes eligible for the federal death penalty. That study has not yet been completed. A recent article in The New York Times (Charges of Bias Challenge U.S. Death Penalty, June 24, 2000), however, discusses the kind of data this study is expected to reveal:

* Since the significant expansion of the federal death penalty in 1994, federal prosecutors in a dozen Southern states have accounted for more than half the federal cases in which the death penalty was sought.

*Between 1994 and 1999, one-third of the U.S. Attorney's offices did not file a single capital prosecution request.

* More than three-quarters of the federal prosecutions where the death penalty was sought have been against African Americans, Hispanic Americans or other minorities.

We find it difficult to believe that crimes eligible for the federal death penalty were committed predominantly in Southern states. And we find it equally difficult to believe that crimes eligible for the federal death penalty were not committed in every state, if not almost every state, since 1994.

In addition to the data contained in the Justice Department report, we also know that between 1988 and 1993, nearly 90% of the defendants against whom the federal government sought the death penalty under the Drug Kingpin statute were African American or Hispanic American.

The result of this apparently racially biased system of prosecution, conviction and sentencing is disturbing. We now have a high proportion of minorities on federal death row. Fifteen of the 19 federal death row inmates facing execution are African American, Hispanic American or members of other minority groups. In fact, the proportion of African Americans on federal death row is greater than in all states with the death penalty, with the exception of only five states - Arkansas, Maryland, Louisiana, Illinois and Pennsylvania. And on military death row, six of the seven inmates are members of minority groups.

Since Governor George Ryan announced his intention in January to suspend executions in Illinois until a state panel can examine whether Illinois is administering the death penalty fairly and justly, the nation has begun a re-evaluation of the system by which we impose the sentence of death. Real questions are being raised about whether innocent people are being condemned to die. Americans are becoming increasingly concerned that the death penalty is visited disproportionately on the poor and minorities.

As you know, the first federal execution since the reinstatement of the modern death penalty - and in fact the first federal execution since 1963 - could take place soon. A federal judge has set August 5, 2000 as the execution date for Juan Raul Garza.

The judge in that case set a date notwithstanding the fact that guidelines for the submission and consideration of a clemency petition have not been implemented by the Department of Justice. All aspects of the capital decision-making process, from authorization through clemency, require a heightened level of reliability. Indeed, the Supreme Court has said that the death penalty is qualitatively different from other punishments and subject to additional procedural requirements, and has declared the death penalty constitutional only when the process by which it is imposed is not an arbitrary one. Mr. President, in light of the serious questions we expect to be raised by the study of racial disparities in the administration of the federal death penalty and the fact that procedures for the submission and consideration of clemency petitions have not yet been enacted, we respectfully urge you to suspend federal executions and undertake a thorough review of the administration of the federal death penalty. Before the federal government executes anyone, the federal government should be absolutely certain that the system by which it imposes the ultimate punishment is administered fairly and justly. It must ensure that the federal death penalty is applied in a fair and just manner, sought against defendants free of even a hint of racial bias, and sought evenly from U.S. Attorney district to U.S. Attorney district across the nation. In short, before using the immense power of the federal government to take the life of a fellow citizen on our behalf, our government has a solemn responsibility to every American to prove that its actions are consistent with our nation's fundamental principles of justice, equality and due process.

Thank you for your attention to this issue. We look forward to hearing from you.


Russell D. Feingold

Jesse L. Jackson, Jr.

Carl Levin

Paul D. Wellstone

Tom Harkin