This study addressed questions related to potential geographic and racial disparity in the investigation and prosecution of federal capital cases and examined the process by which criminal cases, specially homicide cases, enter the federal criminal justice system. The goal was two-fold: to identify the process in selected districts by which the federal government is made aware of potential, federally relevant homicide cases, and to identify the process and factors that influence the decision by U.S. attorneys in those districts to prosecute a homicide case in the federal court system or decline federal prosecution. While the study focused on the processing of homicides, the original impetus for the study revolved around application of the federal death penalty, specifically as it relates to disparity in race, ethnicity, gender, and geographic location with an emphasis on the federal system.
The primary method of data collection used was face-to-face interviews of key criminal justice officials within each district included in the study. Between 2000 and 2004, the researchers visited nine federal districts and interviewed all actors in the state and federal criminal justice systems who potentially would play a role in determining whether a homicide case was investigated and prosecuted in the state or federal systems. The study focused on homicide cases because federal homicides represented the offense of conviction in all capital case convictions in the federal system under the 2000 and 2001 DOJ reports (see U.S. Department of Justice, "The Federal Death Penalty System: A Statistical Survey (1988-2000)," Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, September 12, 2000, and U.S. Department of Justice, "The Federal Death Penalty System: Supplementary Data, Analysis and Revised Protocols for Capital Case Review," Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, June 6, 2001). In addition, federally related homicides are frequently involved with drug, gang, and/or organized crime investigations. Using 11 standardized interview protocols, developed in consultation with members of the project's advisory group, research staff interviewed local investigative agencies (police chief or his/her representative, section heads for homicide, drug, gang, or organized crime units as applicable to the agency structure), federal investigative agencies (Special Agent-in-Charge or designee, section heads of relevant units), local prosecutors (District Attorney, Assistant District Attorney, including the line attorneys and section heads), and defense attorneys who practiced in federal court. Due to the extensive number of issues to be covered with the U.S. Attorneys' Offices, interviews were conducted with: (1) the U.S. Attorney or designated representative, (2) section heads, and (3) Assistant U.S. Attorneys (AUSAs) within the respective sections. Because the U.S. Attorneys were appointed following the change in the U.S. Presidency in 2000, a slightly altered U.S. Attorney questionnaire was designed for interviews with the former U.S. Attorney who was in office during the study period of 1995 through 2000. The first contact with agencies within each district by project staff involved a letter of introduction mailed to the head of each agency or office. The letter introduced project staff and described the project. It requested their agency's participation and the identification of a contact person to help with respondent identification, scheduling of interviews, and logistics. Letters to local officials additionally included a letter from National Institute of Justice (NIJ) encouraging participation. Letters to district attorneys included a letter from the National District Attorneys' Association encouraging participation. Prior to this mailing, authorizations from the main offices of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearm (ATF), and the Executive Office of the U.S. Attorney (EOUSA) were emailed to all district offices that would be asked to participate. Approximately two weeks after the letters of introduction were mailed, project staff contacted each agency by telephone to identify the contact person and explain the criteria to be considered in selecting individuals to be interviewed. For all agencies, interviews were requested with the head of the agency (Chief of Police, Sheriff, District Attorney, U.S. Attorney, Special Agent-in-Charge, or Federal Defender) or a proxy designated by the head. For most agencies, three section heads involved in drug, gang, or organized crime investigations or prosecutions were identified to be interviewed. At the U.S. Attorney's Office, typically two or more Assistant U.S. Attorneys were interviewed within each office, with additional interviews conducted if multiple offices were included within the district. Finally, direct contact was made with the Federal Defender in each district. The researchers explained that instead of a formal interview, they preferred to explore issues influencing federal processing in their district with federal or state defense attorneys who were knowledgeable of and had experience in the federal criminal justice system. They were asked to identify knowledgeable defenders, and a joint meeting was held for a group discussion on general issues. Because the project focus was on issues and processes from 1995 through 2000, they requested that, whenever possible, respondents who had been in the agency during some or all of that period be made available. In some instances, a second individual with longer tenure was chosen to be interviewed simultaneously when the head or section head was newer to the position. Despite the researchers' efforts, in some instances the district contacts arranged interviews without following the criteria, which the researchers sometimes felt obliged to interview. In instances when numerous respondents were gathered in a room for an interview, the researchers attempted to break-up the group and reschedule individual meetings. If this was not possible, the researchers interviewed the group as a whole. In some instances when a key respondent was unavailable during the site visit and no acceptable alternative could be identified, arrangements were made to complete the interview by telephone after the visit. Staff took notes during the interview, typing notes at the earliest possible time subsequent to the interview.
To identify various models of how the federal government processed homicides, the primary factors used to select districts included the number of homicides occurring within each district and the numbers processed federally. Districts with low numbers of homicides reported, coupled with low numbers of federal capital cases were eliminated from consideration. Two lists were developed and districts were rank-ordered according to: (1) the number of reported homicide occurrences within the district as reported by the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports from 1995 through 2000, and (2) the number of federal defendants considered by the DOJ CCU during that same period and as reported in the DOJ studies mentioned above. An equal number of districts were selected from the highest ranking from each list. The final list represented districts with: (1) high homicide occurrence and varying rates of federal prosecution, and (2) high numbers of federal prosecution and varying rates of homicide occurrence. Because several districts at the top of these lists clustered in the same geographic regions, two districts originally included were eliminated and alternate sites were substituted by continuing down the lists. The replacement districts included those with high homicide rates but few federal prosecutions. This method facilitated consideration of factors in these districts that influenced cases to remain in the state system that may have been prosecuted federally in other districts. The resulting ten districts selected for the study represented all regions of the country, states with and without state death penalties, and a wide range in the numbers of cases submitted to the CCU for federal capital case processing. Due to delays in gaining access to the various offices, funds only permitted the researchers to visit nine of the ten districts. Within each of the nine districts, all major local and federal agencies believed to influence (or potentially play a role in) decisions to investigate and prosecute homicide cases federally were included in the study. Local jurisdictions within each district were selected based on the percent of homicides reported in the district that occurred in their geographic area. Jurisdictions reporting the highest number of homicides in each district were selected automatically. If these jurisdictions contributed less than 50 percent of the district's homicide occurrences, additional jurisdictions were included until 50 percent of the homicides were represented. Given this criteria, the number of local jurisdictions selected ranged from one to five jurisdictions. All local law enforcement and local prosecutors that handled homicide cases were included, as well as State law enforcement agencies, unless early contacts indicated that they played no role in homicide investigations within the state. Federal agencies in the study included the U.S. Attorney's Offices (USA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), and the Federal Defender Offices. In each district, the main offices of the U.S. Attorneys were selected as well as the main offices of the federal investigative agencies. Representatives from satellite offices were included if they processed cases from areas covered by local agencies selected due to homicide rates (see above). Federal Defender Offices or private attorneys who practiced in the federal courts were included in the study as well. Because of the nature of the district selection process for this study, individual districts or the grouping of districts cannot be construed as representative of other districts or all federal districts.
All capital-eligible cases investigated and prosecuted in the state or federal systems from 1995 to 2000.
Data for this study were gathered through both face-to-face and telephone interviews.
The interviews included questions related to the nature of the local crime problem, agency crime priorities, perceived benefits of the federal over the local process, local and federal resources, nature and target of joint task forces, relationships between and among agencies, policy and agreements, definitions and understanding of federal jurisdiction, federal investigative strategies, case flow, and attitudes toward the death penalty.
Specific response rates are not available. However, most local agencies were willing to participate once the project was fully explained and they understood that the researchers would be in the area to interview at other agencies. In a few cases, contacts were difficult to make because calls were never returned. However, at least one interview was eventually obtained from each agency contacted, even if completed by telephone after the site visit. All former U.S. attorneys that the researchers were able to contact agreed to be interviewed, some in person and others by telephone.