In deciding to stay Garza's execution until June 2001, Mr. Clinton said he wanted to give the Justice Department more time to gather and properly analyze information about racial and geographic disparities in the federal death penalty system.
"In issuing the stay, I have not decided that the death penalty should not be imposed in this case, in which heinous crimes were proved," the president said in a statement. "Nor have I decided to halt all executions in the federal system."
Garza, convicted in three murders and linked to five others, was due to die Dec. 12 at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind. It would have been the first federal execution since 1963, when Victor Feguer was hanged in Iowa for murder and kidnapping.
"I believe that the death penalty is appropriate for the most heinous crimes," the president said, but added, "Whether one supports the death penalty or opposes it, there should be no question that the gravity and finality of the penalty demand that we be certain that when it is imposed, it is imposed fairly."
Garza's claim was based on a Justice Department report released in September which says calls the federal death penalty process "fundamentally unfair" and "grossly biased" against minorities.
According to the report, Hispanic defendants are 2.3 times more likely to be prosecuted for federal capital murder than whites, and whites are 43 percent more likely than blacks or Hispanic defendants to be able to avoid a federal death sentence through plea agreements.
There are a total of 21 convicts on Federal Death Row in Terre Haute. Of them, 13 are black, 4 white, 3 Hispanic, and 1 Asian. Timothy McVeigh, convicted in the Oklahoma City bombing, is the most well-known.
The racial disparity has provoked growing demands for a moratorium to be imposed on federal executions.
"Whether it results from any kind of ethnic discrimination on the part of juries, we don't know," says Lloyd Cutler, a former White House counsel who is among the many calling for a moratorium.
Garza has such a long, bloody rap sheet that his legal team isn't even claiming that he is innocent; they instead seek commutation of his sentence to life without parole.
His clemency petition says that he "accepts responsibility for these crimes," "the friends and loved ones of those (he) victimized have suffered unimaginable pain and anguish, and he "is responsible for their suffering and deserves punishment."
The petition goes on to ask that "consideration be given to another group of innocent people: the members of Mr. Garza's family, who seek the President's mercy in commuting Mr. Garza's sentence. For them, the grave issues of public opinion that arise from his sentence give way to the profound private concern of simply keeping him alive."
Two of Garza's victims, accused lieutenants in his drug operation, were murdered after losing a marijuana shipment; a third man, also said to have been part of his drug ring, was murdered for cooperating with the Feds and planning to testify against Garza.
U.S. District Court Judge Filemon Vela, who set Garza's first execution date, maintains that racial disparities are actually irrelevant in this case. "The Judge was Hispanic. The witnesses were Hispanic. The jurors were Hispanic," argues Vela.
Garza attorney Greg Wiercioch contends that race is nonetheless a significant factor because the "discrimination, we believe, occurred at the front end of the system. That is, whether the United States was even going to seek the death penalty against Juan Garza in the first place and that decision, we believe, was influenced by the color of the defendant's skin."
Wiercoch also says his client's sentence is more severe than those imposed on defendants convicted of similar crimes, including his three co-defendants. He adds that U.S. Attorney Janet Reno has declined to seek the death penalty in some cases, which he believes are so similar they mirror the Garza case.
In addition to the delay he ordered, Mr. Clinton had several options in responding to the clemency petition, including denying the request; granting the request, which would mean changing the sentence to life in prison without parole; granting a 90-day stay of execution, in effect passing the issue on for the next president to decide.
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