President Clinton granted a six-month reprieve Thursday night to a Mexican American inmate from Texas who was just five days away from becoming the first federal prisoner executed since 1963.
The president said he ordered the reprieve for Juan Raul Garza to give the Justice Department time to study “racial and geographic disparities in the federal death penalty system.”
“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,” said Clinton, who presided over four executions while serving as Arkansas’ governor. “In this area, there is no room for error.”
An administration official said that the president’s decision was “in line” with a recommendation from Atty. Gen. Janet Reno. The president met late Thursday afternoon with Reno, White House Chief of Staff John Podesta and White House counsel Beth Nolan, all of whom had been working on the issue, the official said.
Clinton’s statement about “disparities” was a reference to a September Justice Department study that showed 70% of federal death penalty defendants are Latino and African American and that nearly half the federal cases in which the death penalty is sought are from a handful of states, including Texas.
Garza, 44, ran a marijuana trafficking ring in South Texas and was convicted in 1994 of three drug-related murders.
His attorneys and other death penalty foes said they were pleased that his execution was delayed. But some were troubled by the prospect that Clinton’s decision will leave Garza’s fate in the hands of George W. Bush, who could become the next president and could rescind the reprieve.
40th Execution Held in Texas
During Bush’s six years as governor of Texas, there have been 150 executions, more than during the tenure of any other governor in U.S. history. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, all Bush appointees, have commuted only one death sentence during that period. On Thursday, Texas had its 40th execution of the year--also a record high.
If, however, the election battle turns around, Garza’s fate would be in the hands of Vice President Al Gore, who has consistently said that he favors capital punishment. But Gore supports further review of the federal system by the Justice Department.
Garza defense attorney Richard Burr said Clinton had “stopped an execution that could not in good conscience have been carried out. He has recognized that the federal death penalty system is beset by racial and geographic disparities.”
“What the president did is a critically important first step.”
But Burr said the president took an incomplete step, “knowing full well that the next administration may not be nearly as sensitive to the issues he is sensitive to.”
“The proper thing would have been to enter an order to assure that no one would be executed by the federal government until a full and fair and proper study had been conducted and the results of that study implemented in connection with everyone sentenced to death,” said Burr, a Houston attorney who has represented death penalty defendants for 21 years.
Mervyn Mosbacker, the U.S. attorney in Houston whose office prosecuted Garza, declined to comment Thursday night.
Clinton acted under Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, which states that the president “shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for crimes against the United States except in cases of impeachment.”
Clinton has been heavily lobbied by liberal allies, particularly from the nation’s civil rights community, to block the Tuesday execution and order a moratorium on federal executions. They maintain it would be improper to carry out a death sentence while the Justice Department is studying whether the federal capital punishment statute is being administered fairly.
On Thursday, two dozen civil rights leaders ran a large advertisement in the New York Times, urging the president to impose a moratorium.
“Answers are needed before Juan Raul Garza or any other federal prisoner is put to death,” the ad said. “This is a defining moment. This is the moment to uphold America’s commitment to principles of fairness and racial equality.”
Among those signing the ad were the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, chairman of the Black Leadership Forum; the Rev. Jesse Jackson; Andrew Young, former U.N. ambassador who served as a key assistant to Martin Luther King Jr.; and Julian Bond, chairman of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.
Clinton also received entreaties on Garza’s behalf from Pope John Paul II and French President Jacques Chirac. Speaking on behalf of the European Union, whose members do not allow the death penalty, Chirac asked Clinton to halt the execution as “a man of conscience and conviction.”
Several Democratic senators, led by Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin and Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, also have urged a moratorium. Feingold said Thursday night that he was “grateful for the president’s courage and leadership” but added that a stay for one inmate does not “completely address the systemic flaws in the federal system.” Feingold said he plans to reintroduce legislation next year calling for a moratorium on federal executions and an independent commission to review the system.
At the same time, conservatives such as Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) urged the president in a letter to let the execution proceed and send a message that the U.S. “will not hesitate to use capital punishment” to rid the nation of murderous drug traffickers.
Last summer, Clinton gave Garza a reprieve from an Aug. 5 execution date, saying the government needed to develop new federal clemency procedures.
Then, in September, the Justice Department released figures showing that blacks and Latinos face federal death penalty charges much more often than whites, figures that Clinton said he found troubling.
For Clinton, the decision on whether to allow Garza’s execution provided a singular bookend for his presidency. During the 1992 primary season, Clinton cemented his credentials as a tough-on-crime Democrat and was harshly criticized by liberals for returning to Arkansas to be there when a man who was mentally incapacitated was executed.
The reach of the federal death penalty was dramatically expanded as a result of a law that Clinton supported in 1994. That statute affects only those capital cases filed in federal court. Most death penalty prosecutions in the United States are brought by state authorities.
Clinton stopped short of commuting Garza’s sentence to life without the possibility of parole, as his attorneys requested.
Final Decision Not Made in Garza Case
In fact, the president made a point of saying, “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. Nor have I decided to halt all executions in the federal system.”
Earlier Thursday, Reno, who less than three months ago said she saw no need for a moratorium on federal executions, opened the door a crack to that idea by saying that she wants to look “very carefully” at new data on the racial makeup of death row inmates.
Reno, who was questioned at her weekly press briefing about capital punishment, said, “I have not seen a basis for supporting [a moratorium] thus far.” But she acknowledged that she has yet to complete a review of data from federal prosecutors around the country. She has asked for their criteria for deciding which defendants are charged with capital crimes.
Reno added that she is still reviewing information about the racial and ethnic makeup of federal death row prisoners to determine whether that information is relevant to Garza’s case. There are 20 inmates on federal death row in Terre Haute, Ind. Garza is the only Latino; 14 are African American, one is Asian and four are white. Six of the 20 are from Texas.
“The law does not permit inappropriate discrimination based on race or ethnic background,” Reno said. “That is inconsistent with every principle that this nation holds dear. And we want to make sure, as we look at it, that race and ethnicity have not been an inappropriate factor.”
In a study released in September, the Justice Department said that blacks and other minorities represented an overwhelming share of the federal prisoners who could potentially face the death penalty. Of 682 capital cases since 1995, 80% of defendants were minorities and 20% were white, the study found.
“We have gone over the cases carefully. They are represented by competent counsel. There is a good system in place,” she said at that time.
Hastings College of Law professor Rory Little, who formerly served on the Justice Department’s death penalty review committee, noted that Garza’s situation is different from the 13 death row inmates in Illinois who were exonerated, prompting that state’s Republican governor to imposed a moratorium there earlier this year.
Garza’s guilt is not in question. In the clemency petition submitted to Clinton in September, Garza’s lawyers stated, “The friends and loved ones of those victimized by Mr. Garza’s crimes have suffered unimaginable pain and anguish. He is responsible for their suffering and deserves punishment.”
The petition argued that Garza’s death sentence “was as much the happenstance of where his crimes were committed [Texas] as much as any other factor.” The petition contended that Garza’s sentence, was unfair compared to sentences sought against and imposed on other defendants convicted of similar offenses. Those included numerous criminals responsible for more deaths who received life sentences, his attorneys said.
Attorneys Greg Wiercioch and Bruce Gilchrist, who wrote Garza’s clemency petition, said their client was relieved and that his wife and children were “very happy” that they have at least another six months to visit him.
But Wiercioch added: “We felt that the president had enough information to grant clemency. Six more months of study will not change the fact that the federal government sought the death penalty in Texas five times between 1988 and 1994, and all the defendants were Hispanic.”
Clinton asked Reno to report to his successor by the end of April 2001 on the fairness of the federal death penalty.
Elisabeth Semel, who heads the American Bar Assn.'s death penalty representation project, said she hoped that in Clinton’s final few weeks in office he would delineate more clearly the parameters of further Justice Department review. She said that was particularly important because there may be considerable turnover in the department in Washington, as well as in the 94 U.S. attorney offices around the country.
“The president needs to use the final six weeks to ensure that his order for further study ensures that it is full, fair and credible and that the focus is not on time but on process.”
Weinstein reported from Los Angeles and Lichtblau from Washington.