In a decision announced last Thursday, the federal government averted carrying out its first death sentence in 37 years. President Clinton postponed the execution of Juan Raul Garza for at least six months, saying he was granting the reprieve to allow the Justice Department time to study ``racial and geographic disparities in the federal death penalty system.''
This is as it should be.
Garza should not be executed because his sentence is the result of a system in which a person's race and ethnicity and the happenstance of where the crime was committed are factors. Those who believe any government action, much less the taking of a life, is intolerable if it is based on racial or ethnic bias or arbitrariness must make their voices heard over the ongoing din of presidential politics.
The irony of Garza's death sentence is that it is a product of the best capital punishment system we have yet created. After the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972 because it was being applied arbitrarily, the federal government was slow to re-enact death sentencing procedures. Not until 1988 did the federal government revise its capital sentencing statutes to comply with the guidelines. By then, most states that used capital punishment had 16 years of experience in determining the fairest and most reliable -- and constitutional -- manner in which to subject people to the death penalty.
The drafters of the revised federal capital sentencing statute drew from the states' measures. Capital crimes were carefully defined and circumscribed. Juries' discretion to impose the death penalty was limited and guided by specific, narrowly drawn factors. A jury's consideration of mitigating factors, reasons to spare an offender's life, was unimpeded. Indigent defendants were provided two qualified counsel, and the process by which counsel were chosen assured the best. Appointed counsel were paid adequately, and funds were available for investigators and necessary experts.
Notwithstanding all these safeguards, the federal death penalty system still functions like the ones condemned by the Supreme Court in 1972. According to the U.S. Justice Department's own data, nearly 70 percent of those against whom the federal government seeks the death penalty are people of color or ethnic minorities, yet we know that far fewer than 70 percent of the people who commit federal capital crimes are people of color and ethnic minorities. More than half the federal capital prosecutions come from fewer than one-third of the states, yet the incidence of federal capital crimes is evenly distributed across the country. The same crime is not prosecuted as a capital crime in different parts of the country. Thus, people like Garza, who is Mexican-American and whose crime was committed in Texas, are far more likely to be prosecuted for death than are white people who commit similar or even worse crimes in states that are less prone to the death penalty.
The soul of the nation cries out for reconsideration of the execution of Garza and anyone else who has been condemned under the current regime. If racial profiling is unacceptable for traffic stops, how much more unacceptable is it in determining which people are the target of federal capital prosecution?
Oh, a Los Angeles attorney, is a former member of President Clinton's race initiative advisory board.
© 2000 PioneerPlanet / St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press