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

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''It's an unconscious racial bias,'' he says. His study shows that between 1972 and 1977, 2,002 blacks and 2,008 whites were murdered in Florida. In prosecution for these crimes, 147 death sentences were given - 135 to convicts who killed whites and 12 to convicts who killed blacks.

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In earlier rulings the US Supreme Court has said the death penalty cannot be used ''arbitrarily.'' In other words, the legal facts of the case are supposed to be the only facts influencing the judicial process by which the death penalty is given. Race is not supposed to be considered; nor is publicity, geography, ambition of the prosecutor, or any other nonlegal factors.

But ''race (of the victim) is a pervasive factor through the stages of the (judicial) process,'' says Professor Bowers, director of the Center for Applied Social Research at Northeastern University.

His research shows that prosecutors in Florida are 30 to 40 percent more likely to press for a first-degree murder indictment (punishable by death) against criminals who kill whites than against those who kill blacks in similar cases.

His study also notes that in interviews conducted in Florida by former prosecutor Mary Brennan, judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys more often mentioned nonlegal factors than legal ones in explaining decisions to press for capital punishment in some cases and not others.

In the second study, David Baldus of the University of Iowa has researched death-penalty cases in Georgia from 1973 to 1978. Among his findings: In first-degree murder cases, at midpoint between the most serious and the least serious, murderers of whites are two times more likely than murderers of blacks to have prosecutors seek the death penalty.

Mr. Baldus also found that for the average defendant indicted for murder, the chances of receiving a death sentence were approximately four times greater if the victim was white. Race of victim, he found, was as important in determining a sentence as, for example, whether the defendant had a prior felony conviction or was killing to avoid arrest.

In the third study, Michael Radelet of the University of Florida looked at what happens after police investigators classify a murder according to its degree of seriousness. (For example, murder committed along with another felony is considered more serious than murder by itself.) Then he examined prosecutors' decisions to classify the same cases as more serious or less serious than police did as they presented the cases in court.

''Prosecutors selectively manipulated cases based on the defendants' and the victims' race,'' Mr. Radelet says.

In murder cases where the victim was white, for example, he found that prosecutors were ''more severe'' than in similar cases when the victim was black. He also found that prosecutors were four times as likely to increase the charges against a black killing a white than against a white killing a black.

''Powerful whites in the community get more outraged when a black kills a white than when a white kills a black,'' Radelet says.

Allegedly discriminatory use of the death penalty ''is not a problem that can be eliminated by giving the jury some (additional) guidelines,'' says Professor Bowers. He contends that the death penalty cannot be used in a nonarbitrary way and is therefore unconstitutional.