Judge wants reasons for capital charge

May 11, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- A federal judge in Pennsylvania has ordered the Justice Department to explain why it is seeking the death penalty against a black defendant in a murder case.

The order, issued May 3, is believed to represent the first time a federal judge has tried to pry open one of the agency's most closely guarded secrets: why the Justice Department believes some murderers must die while others may live.

The timing is particularly crucial because the order comes as Congress makes its final push on a crime bill, the House version of which wouldallow defendants to appeal their death sentences by showing that judges and juries are racially biased in calling for capital punishment. Four years ago, the Senate defeated a similar measure.

Marty Carlson, an assistant U.S. attorney in Harrisburg, Pa., said that the Justice Department has not decided whether to appeal the judge's order. The department has to respond by Friday.

The order was issued by Sylvia H. Rambo, chief federal judge for the Middle District of Pennsylvania in a case involving a New Yorker, Michael Murray, who is accused of killing a minor drug dealer, Juan Carlos-Bacallo of Harrisburg. Prosecutors said both men were part of a ring that supplied crack in the Harrisburg area.

Although almost all of the approximately 20,000 people arrested in homicide cases every year are tried in state courts, the number of federal defendants who may be subject to the death penalty will probably expand after the federal crime bill is approved.

In March, a congressional report found that of the 37 defendants the Justice Department has sought to execute for drug-related murders since 1988, 33 were black or Hispanic. During the Clinton administration, all 10 of the defendants whom federal prosecutors have sought to put to death have been black.

Justice Department officials deny that racial bias is a factor in decisions to seek the death penalty. But officials have refused to discuss the process or criteria used despite repeated requests from Congress.

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