Friday, June 8, 2001

Banning death penalty
would ensure no bias
in its application

The issue: Attorney General John
Ashcroft says the government does not
discriminate against minorities
in seeking the death penalty.

MOST federal prisoners on death row are minorities, but Attorney General John Ashcroft says that does not mean the Justice Department has discriminated on the basis of race against those for whom it seeks the death penalty. Instead, he explains, the racial makeup of death row reflects the larger pool of those who were prosecuted in capital cases.

That doesn't explain whether bias was present in that initial selection process. The best way to eliminate any question of discrimination is to end the death penalty altogether.

"Our conclusions are that there is no evidence of racial bias in the administration of the federal death penalty," Ashcroft said before releasing the results of a study ordered last September by his predecessor, Janet Reno, who expressed concern about apparent racial disparities.

The study encompassed the capital cases of nearly 1,000 defendants prosecuted by the federal government since 1995. Forty-two percent were black, 36 percent were Latino and 17 percent were white, the study showed. Of those, the Justice Department sought the death penalty for 27 percent of the eligible whites, 17 percent of the blacks and 9 percent of the Latinos. Of the 21 persons on federal death row today, three are white -- including Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who is scheduled Monday to become the first person executed by the federal government in 40 years.

Those figures certainly indicate no bias at that level against minorities, who were disproportionately represented in the pool of potential candidates for lethal injection. The ethnic makeup of that pool, Ashcroft said, has to do with law-enforcement strategies.

"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 said. "This is not the result of any form of bias."

Another consideration not mentioned by Ashcroft has been the preference to seek the death penalty federally only where states have legalized capital punishment. Those states have executed more than 700 persons since the U.S. Supreme Court gave its approval for reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976.

In the 12 states, including Hawaii, that do not have capital punishment, the Justice Department has sought the death penalty only once -- two months ago in Massachusetts, where the jury rejected it. Nine of the 94 U.S. attorney districts accounted for about 43 percent of all cases in which federal prosecutors called for the death penalty. Virginia had 66 death penalty cases and Puerto Rico had 72.

"The federal government should be applying the law evenly," said Rachel King, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

The preferable way for dispensing justice evenly would be for the United States to follow the lead of other industrialized nations in eliminating capital punishment throughout the country.

Safety is paramount
in mercury dispute

The issue: The state Health
Department will take on the
removal of the toxic material.

The state Department of Health is doing the right thing in cleaning up the mercury that led to contamination of a public housing complex in Halawa and other locations across the island.

In the three months since the contamination was discovered, state and federal agencies have been quibbling about who is responsible for removing the toxic substance from an abandoned pump house near Pearl Harbor's Richardson Field. With no clear end to the dispute, the Health Department, as it should, is placing the public's safety as the priority.

As happens when multiple government jurisdictions are involved, untangling obligations won't be easy.

The Army Corps of Engineers says it won't do the work because the project does not meet federal guidelines, even though the corps has acknowledged that its survey team reported "mercury splatters" on the pump house floor last summer.

The Navy, which deeded the pump house to the state in 1962 and estimates that there may be 1.5 gallons of mercury in the equipment it left there, has not taken responsibility for the matter.

Also involved are the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which owned and maintained the pump house for years, and the state Department of Defense, which took title of the facility earlier this year.

As Health Department deputy director Gary Gill told the Star-Bulletin, "It's fair to say that no responsible party has stepped forward to accept full responsibility."

However, pointing fingers does not negate the hazard that the mercury presents and public safety demands that it be removed as soon as possible. Regardless of which agency is assigned blame, taxpayers will ultimately foot the bill.

Published by Oahu Publications Inc., a subsidiary of Black Press.

Don Kendall, President

John Flanagan, publisher and editor in chief 529-4748;
Frank Bridgewater, managing editor 529-4791;
Michael Rovner,
assistant managing editor 529-4768;
Lucy Young-Oda, assistant managing editor 529-4762;

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