Federal death-row case casts spotlight on racial injustices

Stay of execution may add to public concern about unfair application of death penalty based on race.

On Dec. 12, at 9 a.m., Juan Raul Garza was to become the first federal prisoner to be executed in 37 years. But last Thursday he got a reprieve, from none other than President Clinton.

Citing a recent study showing racial and geographic disparities in the federal death-penalty system, Mr. Clinton stayed Mr. Garza's execution for six months.

While still in favor of the death penalty, Clinton said the government needed more time to study whether there is racial bias in capital trials, and what can be done to remedy it.

In the polarized world of death-penalty activists, the president's action pleased almost no one. Supporters of the death penalty criticized him for adding another delay to what they see as the government's rightful punishment of dangerous criminals. Opponents of capital punishment - including the NAACP, Pope John Paul II, and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel - breathed a sigh of relief for Garza, but said a stay of execution was far short of a full-scale moratorium on the death penalty.

But in the waning days of his administration, Clinton's stay of execution may achieve a larger goal: to cast a spotlight on the question of race in America's system of capital punishment.

"The Justice Department study shows that the death penalty is so clearly unfair," says Peter Loge, director of The Justice Project in Washington. "It's not that we should abandon it, because frankly there are people who shouldn't be on the streets. But we can do things to make sure it is a more level playing field."

There is little disagreement about the facts of the Garza case. Garza, a Hispanic father of four and admitted marijuana smuggler from Brownsville, Texas, has acknowledged murdering one drug distributor and ordering the deaths of another distributor and his bodyguard.

But Garza's lawyers have called on the president to commute his sentence to life without possibility of parole, calling the federal death penalty "grossly biased" against racial minorities.

For support, Garza and his lawyers point to a US Justice Department study of all the cases that federal prosecutors have submitted for capital punishment trials since 1976. Eighty percent of these cases had minority defendants. Today, 16 of the 20 people on federal death row are minorities. To death-penalty opponents, this is proof that prosecutors discriminate by race, consciously or not.

"We're in a country that has 15,000 murders a year, and less than 1 percent of [perpetrators] end up facing execution," says Richard Dieter, a death-penalty opponent, and director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. "How does that 1 percent get chosen? If that process is biased, because of the race of the defendant, or the race of the victim, or what part of the country you live in, that fact is an arbitrary one."

Noting the 1972 Supreme Court decision to halt all death penalties because their application was arbitrary, Mr. Dieter says, "It's the same kind of problem."

But to capital punishment supporters, such discussions of racial statistics are beside the point.

"The possibility that somebody else may have gotten unfair treatment" because of racial bias or geography "is no reason to stop the execution of someone who is in fact guilty and does in fact deserve his penalty," says Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, who calls Clinton's decision to stay Garza's execution "completely unjustified."

All death-penalty cases, both at the federal and state level, undergo detailed review and extensive appeals to be sure that a defendant has received a fair trial, adds Dudley Sharp, another death-penalty supporter and director of the Houston-based group Justice for All.

Yet doubts about the administration of capital punishment have clearly crept into the American mind-set. A recent study by The Justice Project found that nearly 47 percent of the 4,578 death-penalty cases that went to appellate court were overturned because of incompetent defense attorneys, police or prosecutor misconduct, or judicial error. Some 82 percent of the people whose death sentences were overturned were found to deserve a sentence less than death, and 7 percent were found to be innocent of the capital crime.

It was just such systemic flaws that led Republican Gov. George Ryan of Illinois to call for a moratorium on executions in his state.

The perception of error may even be causing a change of mind about the death penalty in Texas, the state that set a record this year for the number of people put to death in a single year: 40.

According to a still-to-be-published Texas Crime Poll, conducted by Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, support for the death penalty among Texans has dropped from 81 percent to 72 percent during the past six years. The biggest drops came from among blacks and young people ages 18 to 29.

There was even some wavering among strong death-penalty supporters. In 1994, 66 percent said they would still support capital punishment if there was the possibility of life without parole. In 2000, that number was 60 percent.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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