The murder of a white person, especially in nonurban counties, is far more likely to result in a California death sentence than urban crimes against minorities, according to a new study.

Death penalty opponents say this new evidence that race and geography dictate how the state metes out capital punishment proves the system is skewed and must be halted at least until it is fixed.

The study, in a forthcoming issue of the Santa Clara Law Review, reviewed all California homicides committed from the start of 1990 through the end of 1999, using data from the FBI and the state. Among its key findings:

-Of 11 men executed since the state reinstated its death penalty in 1978, nine — or 82 percent — were convicted of killing white victims, while only 27.6 percent of murder victims are white.

-In the 1990s, those who murdered whites were more than four times as likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered Latinos and more than three times as likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered African Americans.

-A first-degree murder convict in a predominantly white, rural county was more than three times as likely to be sentenced to death than a person convicted of a similar crime in a diverse, urban county such as Los Angeles, which has the state's highest number of homicides.

Santa Clara University Law School Dean Donald Polden submitted the report Wednesday to the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, which holds its secondmeeting next week in Sacramento.

Polden's letter to the commission says the study — authored by a Northeastern University research scientist and a University of Colorado sociology professor — "raises significant questions about whether the death penalty is being administered fairly in this state."

Advocacy groups want the commission to act on this immediately.

"This study demonstrates for the first time that race and place determine who is sentenced to die in the state of California," Erin Callahan, Amnesty International USA's western regional director, said in a news release. "We know that the death penalty system in California is not fair, and as long as the system is not fair, it will not be accurate."

Natasha Minsker, death penalty policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said the commission must "determine where the bias enters the system. Is it when the prosecutor decides to seek the death penalty or when a jury chooses to sentence a person to death?"

And Death Penalty Focus program director Stefanie Faucher said the state must halt executions until these issues are addressed.

The state Senate formed the 14-member Justice Commission in 2004 to study causes and prevalence of wrongful convictions and wrongful executions in California, and to find ways to improve the system's fairness and accuracy. It has a Dec. 31, 2007, deadline to report its findings and recommendations to the governor and Legislature.

California's death row is the nation's largest, with 647 condemned inmates — about 39 percent white, 35 percent African American and 19 percent Latino. The state has executed 11 since reinstating its death penalty in 1978.

See the study at http://www.aclunc.org/dp/death—penalty—study.pdf.

Contact Josh Richman at

jrichman@angnewspapers.com.