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Death Penalty Measure Survives House Test : Congress: Lawmakers back Racial Justice Act, which allows use of racial statistics to show bias in executions. GOP says it will nullify capital punishment.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The House on Thursday reaffirmed support for the controversial Racial Justice Act despite Republican charges that it would effectively nullify the death penalty or produce a racial quota system in executions.

Defenders of the provision, adopted as part of the comprehensive House crime bill, argued that it is a modest step intended to overcome lingering racial bias in administering the death penalty.

A GOP attempt to remove it from the bill was defeated, 235 to 192--widening the margin from a showdown Wednesday, when opponents lost on a 212-212 vote.

Despite the retention of the provision in the House bill, both supporters and opponents predicted that it would not survive a conference committee that will be convened to reconcile Senate and House versions of the crime legislation. The Senate bill did not include any such provision, and the Senate rejected similar proposals last year.

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Under the House provision, a person sentenced to death could introduce statistical evidence to support allegations of racial discrimination in the use of the death penalty.

For example, a defendant could ask a judge to consider evidence that 100% of the death sentences in a judicial circuit were imposed on black defendants, even though blacks make up only 10% of those convicted of murder.

The trial judge then would decide, by comparing similar cases, whether the allegation had been proved and could either dismiss the claim or, upon a finding of racial bias in imposing the death penalty, lower the sentence to life imprisonment.

Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), chief GOP spokesman on the crime bill, argued that the provision would stop states from imposing the death penalty by placing an impossible burden on prosecutors to demonstrate an absence of racial discrimination in procedures for capital punishment.

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“This isn’t a black-and-white issue,” McCollum said, noting that whites convicted of murder also might use the process to escape execution.

McCollum said the National District Attorneys’ Assn. opposes the provision. He said the language included in the proposal by Rep. Don Edwards (D-San Jose) would allow Death Row prisoners to challenge the death sentence retroactively.

But Edwards and Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.) assured the House that they would drop the provision allowing retroactive challenges when the measure reaches the conference committee.

The fight over the Racial Justice Act brought Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) into the fray. Democratic leaders wanted to keep the provision in the final bill, partly to persuade members of the Congressional Black Caucus to vote for the legislation despite their misgivings about its expansion of federal crimes subject to the death penalty.

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“I’m for the death penalty, but I want the death penalty to be meted out fairly,” Gephardt said. “This is not about quotas. . . . Some statistics show an astounding pattern of discrimination.”

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, lamented the House action, contending that the provision was “intended to end the use of the death penalty unless it is imposed on a racial quota basis.”

Hatch said President Clinton should speak out against the provision if he truly supports expanded use of the federal death penalty.


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