WASHINGTON — 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."