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National Perspective | CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

Clinton Postpones Execution

Under the spotlight of the election and amid a growing debate over inequities, the president lets a murderer apply for clemency under new rules.


WASHINGTON — Taking up an issue with election-year implications, President Clinton on Wednesday postponed the first federal execution in nearly 40 years so a condemned murderer can apply for presidential clemency under new Justice Department guidelines.

Clinton, in a two-page order, granted a four-month reprieve to convicted drug smuggler and triple murderer Juan Raul Garza, putting off his scheduled execution this Saturday until at least Dec. 12.

The Justice Department said the president is "providing an opportunity [for Garza] to petition under the new regulations" issued earlier Wednesday. Previously, there had been no guidelines addressing how a death row inmate could seek clemency from a president.

Garza's attorneys have said they would petition for clemency once the new guidelines are in place.

Clinton's action, while not unexpected, comes amid growing debate over the death penalty and whether it has been fairly applied. White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart told reporters last month that the president was likely to delay Garza's execution once the Justice Department had completed its guidelines.

Clinton acted as a new Harris Poll showed that public support for the death penalty has fallen since the convictions of several condemned inmates were overturned and a moratorium on executions was declared in Illinois.

The survey found that 64% of those questioned approved of capital punishment. But a similar Harris Poll conducted last year pegged public support for the death penalty at 71%, and a 1997 survey found 75% in favor.

In the latest poll, 94% of respondents said they believed that some innocent people have been convicted of murder. The telephone survey of 1,010 people from July 13 to July 17 had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, the company said.

Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, a staunch supporter of the death penalty, has insisted that it has been applied fairly in Texas, where he has been governor for six years. Texas executes more people than any other state and has imposed the ultimate penalty on 23 inmates so far this year.

Ari Fleischer, a Bush spokesman, said the governor believes executions deter crime but also "understands the complexity of each individual death penalty decision."

Vice President Al Gore, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has said that he supports a delay in Garza's case but sees no evidence that the federal government should enact a moratorium like the one declared by Illinois in January. However, he told reporters last month that if prosecutorial misconduct could be shown, as was the case in Illinois, he "would not hesitate" to support a moratorium.

The Justice Department is near completion of a study on racial disparities in the federal death penalty system. Of federal inmates awaiting execution, 16 are black, four are white, one is Asian and one is Latino, officials said.

Garza is one of 22 people, including Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh, on death row at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind. The alleged head of a marijuana smuggling ring from Mexico, Garza was convicted seven years ago of ordering the murders of three people.

He insisted in a 1994 interview with Associated Press that "I didn't kill any of these people. I'm not responsible."

Garza's attorneys are planning to base their clemency petition on arguments that the criminal justice system discriminates against racial minorities.

The Supreme Court in 1972 struck down state death penalty laws on grounds that they were being applied unfairly, a ruling that also brought federal executions to a halt. The court later reinstated the death penalty after the adoption of new procedures.

The Justice Department's 10 pages of new rules on clemency provide that inmates under a death sentence will be given 120 days notice of their date of execution so they can apply for clemency or a reduction of their sentences. But defendants cannot apply until they have exhausted all their remedies on direct appeal within the court system.

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