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Prosecutors' racial bias may be factor in death-penalty cases

By Robert M. PressStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 6, 1984


A murder in a small town may prompt headlines and public outrage, pressuring local prosecutors to seek the death penalty. A murder in a large city may cause little stir.

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But geography, publicity, and the legal facts of the case are not the only things that may affect prosecutors' decisions to seek the death penalty.

Research shows that the death penalty is more often applied against murderers of whites than murderers of blacks (see related story Dec. 20). This article examines one major aspect of how some murders come to tried as death-penalty cases and others do not - the role of prosecutors.

Until now, the Supreme Court of the United States has provided guidelines to juries on how the death penalty may be applied. But if part of the problem is at the prosecutorial level, such guidelines will not erase what appears to be a discriminatory use of the death penalty against killers of whites, these researchers say.

The three new studies indicate that race, especially the race of the victim, is a major, though hidden, factor in prosecutors' decisions to pursue a murder case as punishable by death. In otherwise similar cases, prosecutors were more likely to seek the death penalty if the victim were white than if a black person were killed, according to these studies. (The findings indicate that the race of the defendant is also a factor, but to a lesser degree.)

The authors of the studies attempt to probe the reasons behind these general findings. The studies, nearing publication, examine Florida, the state with the most people on death row, and Georgia, which ranks fourth.

Some elements of these studies have already been heard in court in death-penalty cases. Researchers predict the US Supreme Court will eventually hear constitutional arguments on whether the way the death penalty is used and the process prosecutors follow in such cases result in racial discrimination.

A fourth study, completed last year on South Carolina's prosecutors, also found that they were more likely to seek the death penalty if the victim was white.

But a prosecutor and a top law-enforcement official in South Carolina, both supporters of capital punishment, deny that race plays a part in the decision to seek the death penalty in murder cases. And in interviews with other researchers , prosecutors in Georgia and Florida did not mention the race of victims as a factor.

Race is ''totally irrelevant'' in such decisions, says Donald Myers, a state solicitor (prosecutor) in Lexington, S.C. ''The law is what I go by.''

Death-penalty cases are prosecuted ''regardless of color (of the victim or the defendant),'' says Leon Gasque, assistant director of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division.

Several months ago a state court in South Carolina heard arguments that capital punishment is unconstitutional because prosecutors allegedly apply it in a manner that discriminates against blacks (as the victims). The court struck down such arguments, but the case will be appealed, says Raymond Paternoster of the University of Maryland, whose research on prosecutors was cited in court.

''Very few people would say outright that race was actually a dominant influence on the prosecutor, but it's there,'' says William J. Bowers, whose research on use of the death penalty in Florida is one of the three new studies that examine the role of prosecutors in such cases.