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Clinton postpones federal execution for six months
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Clinton has postponed what would have been the first federal execution in nearly 40 years, granting a six-month reprieve in the case of federal death row inmate Juan Raul Garza, placing the matter in the hands of whoever becomes the next president of the United States.
Garza, a convicted drug kingpin, was scheduled to be executed December 12. The last federal execution took place in 1963.
"Today, I have decided to stay the execution of Juan Raul Garza, an inmate on federal death row for six months until June 2001, to allow the Justice Department time to gather and properly analyze more information about racial and geographic disparities in the federal death penalty system," the president said in a statement released late Thursday.
Clinton reached his decision after receiving a recommendation from the Justice Department, and meeting with Attorney General Janet Reno, Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, White House Chief of Staff John Podesta and White Counsel Beth Nolan for about 30 minutes Thursday, said Jake Siewert, the president's press secretary.
A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, would not reveal the Justice Department's recommendation but said it was not "out of line" with what the president decided to do.
Garza, 44, of Brownsville, Texas, was convicted in 1993 in Texas of operating a drug-smuggling organization and of ordering the slayings of three associates.
Garza was originally scheduled for execution in August, but Clinton delayed it until December to allow Garza to seek clemency under new guidelines.
Clinton says he hasn't decided against death penalty
Clinton said the stay doesn't mean that he has decided that the death penalty should not be imposed in Garza's case "in which heinous crimes were proved." He also said he is not calling for a halt to all federal executions, as some death penalty opponents, including Senator Russell Feingold (D-Wisconsin), have urged the him to consider.
"I have simply concluded that the examination of possible racial and regional bias should be completed before the United States goes forward with an execution in a case that may implicate the very questions raised by the Justice Department's continuing study," Clinton said. "In this area there is no room for error."
Clinton referred to the release of the Justice Department study this fall, which found that minorities and certain geographical locations were "disproportionately represented in federal death penalty executions."
Justice to report back to new president
The president ordered Reno and her department to continue to analyze the results and report back to the president in April 2001, three months after Clinton leaves office.
"After a careful and close review of this issue, and after conferring with the attorney general and the deputy attorney general, I am not satisfied that, given the uncertainty that exists, it is appropriate to go forward with an execution in a case that may implicate the very issues at the center of that uncertainty," Clinton said.
Clinton could also have declared a moratorium on all federal executions, or granted Garza's clemency request for a sentence of life in prison without parole.
If the president had not taken any action, Garza would have been executed by lethal injection in the new, still-unused federal death chamber at the Terre Haute, Indiana, federal penitentiary.
At her weekly news briefing Thursday, Reno said she remains unconvinced of the need for an across-the-board moratorium on the federal death penalty, saying "I have not seen a basis for supporting it thus far."
But she appeared to leave the door open for a last-minute change in her position, saying she still wanted to review the latest Justice Department data showing geographic and racial disparities in "death penalty eligible" cases handled by federal prosecutors throughout the country.
A Justice Department official said Reno had been briefed on the data supplied in recent days by U.S. attorneys' offices. Her request for additional statistics followed the release of a Justice Department study in September showing the death penalty was sought more often in some states than in others, and in cases involving minority defendants.
At the time, Reno said the disparities did not require a moratorium.
Twenty condemned men, including convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, are on federal death row in Terre Haute. Garza is the only Hispanic sentenced to die. Fourteen of those sentenced to death are black, four are white and one is Asian.
Federal death row inmate David Paul Hammer won a reprieve Novemeber 2 when U.S. District Judge Malcolm Muir allowed him to file a post-conviction petition stating all legal claims that he has not previously waived.
If the petition is not filed by January 31, Hammer will be executed by lethal injection on February 21.
Death penalty opponents, Vatican asked for moratorium
Many prominent death penalty opponents, including staunch Clinton supporters from the civil rights field and entertainment world, have pleaded with the president to declare a moratorium.
Pope John Paul II also appealed to Clinton to grant clemency to Garza.
"In the Holy Father's name I wish, therefore, to beseech you, Mr. President, to spare Mr. Garza's life," wrote the Vatican's Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo.
The Vatican letter said the National Conference of Bishops and U.S. Catholic Conference also requested clemency for Garza.
The Vatican letter came on the heals of a letter from French President Jacques Chirac on behalf of the European Union also requesting clemency.
"I appeal to you as a statesman and also as a man of conscience and conviction," Chirac wrote.
CNN Justice Department Producer Terry Frieden and White House Correspondent Kelly Wallace contributed to this report
Activists urge Clinton to suspend federal executions
U.S. Department of Justice
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