The U.S. Justice Department declared Wednesday that there is no evidence of racial bias in the federal death penalty system and that it will move ahead with plans to execute 20 death row inmates--the overwhelming majority of them minorities.
Rejecting calls for a moratorium, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said the results of a long-awaited Justice Department study show that federal prosecutors are less likely to pursue the death penalty against eligible blacks and Latinos than against whites.
Still, nearly 80% of defendants in federal capital cases are minorities.
Death penalty opponents quickly attacked the study's methodology. Justice Department officials acknowledged that the review may raise as many questions as it answers, but Ashcroft defended the federal system.
"There is no question about the guilt of any of the  individuals currently on federal death row," Ashcroft told members of the House Judiciary Committee at an afternoon hearing. "They have committed grievous crimes that the people of America, through their elected representatives, have determined warrant the death penalty."
The study comes at a critical time in the death penalty debate because authorities are preparing to carry out the first federal executions in 38 years. Two inmates are scheduled to die in a federal prison in Indiana in the next two weeks--Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh on Monday and drug kingpin and convicted murderer Juan Raul Garza on June 19.
McVeigh and Garza are among 20 federal inmates on death row. Fourteen are black, three are Latino and three are white.
Ashcroft's study, expanding on an earlier department review, reinforced evidence of the racial divide in death penalty cases. Of nearly 1,000 defendants who were prosecuted by the federal government since 1995 and were eligible for death, 42% were black, 36% were Latino and 17% were white, the new data showed.
But the reasons for that gap, Ashcroft said, were not racial bias. Rather, he and Justice Department analysts concluded that legitimate law-enforcement strategies and differing policies in the nation's 94 federal districts drove the disparity.
"In areas where large-scale, organized drug trafficking is largely carried out by gangs whose membership is drawn from minority groups, the active federal role in investigating and prosecuting these crimes results in . . . a high proportion of minority defendants in potential capital cases arising from the lethal violence associated with drug trade," the study concluded. "This is not the result of any form of bias."
Part of the reason the number of inmates facing death is skewed toward minorities, the study found, is that a relative handful of federal districts with heavy minority prosecutions bring a large chunk of capital cases.
In the Los Angeles district, for instance, federal prosecutors brought 15 possible death penalty cases for review, including six Latinos, four blacks and three whites.
The 40% rate for Latinos facing the death penalty in Los Angeles prosecutions was significantly higher than the 29% rate for Latinos nationwide. That is partly the result of federal prosecutors in Los Angeles stepping in to bring charges against the "Mexican Mafia," a notorious gang that has tormented the state prison system.
The large numbers of minorities prosecuted in Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and eastern Virginia also drove up the numbers of blacks and Latinos facing death, the study said.
But analysts concluded that for the 973 federal defendants who could have been charged with death, minorities actually fared better proportionally.
The attorney general's office, which reviews all death penalty cases in the federal system, agreed to capital charges for 27% of the eligible whites, 17% of the blacks and 9% of the Latinos. But because there are so many more eligible blacks and Latinos to start with, their numbers ended up higher.
"There is no evidence of racial bias in the administration of the federal death penalty," Ashcroft said Wednesday.
Ashcroft told members of Congress repeatedly that the latest findings jibe with a preliminary study last year by then-Atty. Gen. Janet Reno in rejecting any evidence of racial bias.
But Reno and her deputies said at the time of their review that they were deeply troubled by the overrepresentation of minorities in the death penalty pool, and that was why they ordered the follow-up that led to Wednesday's report.
Critics said the effort to align himself with Reno was only one instance in which Ashcroft had distorted the data to support his pro-death penalty position.
An angry Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), a leading member of the Congressional Black Caucus, told Ashcroft that he was troubled by the way Ashcroft announced his findings at the congressional hearing without releasing the data to back it up until hours later.
And Greg Wiercioch, a Texas attorney who is seeking a commutation of Garza's death sentence, said the report's timing marked "a cynical and deliberate attempt to frustrate our efforts to respond to this study in any thoughtful, meaningful way, because we're less than two weeks away from the execution date."
Garza ran a marijuana trafficking ring in South Texas and was convicted in 1994 of three drug-related murders. His lawyers maintain that he was unfairly sentenced to death, in part because of racial and geographic disparities, an argument that convinced President Clinton last year to give him a six-month reprieve so the Justice Department could study the issue.
Wiercioch said that if Ashcroft really wanted to look at the racial dynamics of the issue, he would have explored why some federal prosecutors bring capital charges against minority drug traffickers while white mobsters and racketeers face lesser charges.
The study looked only at federal death sentences, which represent a small fraction of all U.S. capital cases. The states have executed more than 4,400 people since 1930, compared with 33 in the federal system--and none since 1963.
Although Ashcroft said he is confident that minorities are treated fairly in the federal system, he directed the National Institute of Justice to do a much broader study on death penalty cases and murder in America. And he also moved to expand his personal authority to review and approve all cases in which the death penalty is dropped in a plea bargain.
In the meantime, appeals and possible pleas for commutation will continue for the inmates on death row. Beyond McVeigh and Garza, none of the 20 has received a date for execution.