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Although death penalty opponents see the Justice Department’s Sept. 12 report on race, geography and the federal death penalty as grounds for a federal moratorium, a closer look at the report’s numbers shows a more complex picture. The study states that between 1995 and 2000, U.S. attorneys recommended death in some 183 cases, of which Attorney General Janet Reno approved 159 — two-thirds involving minority defendants. Geographically, just nine of the 94 federal U.S. attorney districts were responsible for 43 percent of all death recommendations. But one U.S. attorney, who requested anonymity, said that although more blacks are charged with death-eligible crimes and the government seeks death for more black than white defendants, the Justice Department is at least 10 percent more likely to seek the death penalty for an eligible white defendant than for a black or Hispanic. Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the disparity could be avoided if the number of officials who decide whether to pursue the death penalty were shrunk and the number of federal capital crimes reduced. “The bias seems most steep when there is the most discretion on the part of U.S. attorneys,” Dieter said. Notwithstanding disagreements over the report’s meaning, on Sept. 13, lawyers for Juan Raul Garza, scheduled on Dec. 12 to become the first federal inmate executed since 1963, cited the report in a petition to President Clinton seeking clemency. One of Garza’s lawyers, Bruce W. Gilchrist, said he based his client’s petition on the new report because “a system that exhibits such widespread disparity in terms of racial or ethnic background or geographic disparity cannot be counted on for fair application.”

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