June 20, 2001

Government Executes Killer in Drug Cases


WASHINGTON, June 19 A Texas man convicted of three drug-related murders was put to death by lethal injection today at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., the same place Timothy J. McVeigh was executed last week.

The execution of the convict, Juan Raul Garza, 44, was only the second by the federal government in nearly four decades, but in a sign that more capital prosecutions are likely to take place, Attorney General John Ashcroft has amended the Justice Department guidelines for United States attorneys.

Under the new guidelines, which were sent to federal prosecutors around the country two weeks ago, it will be easier to bring cases in states without the death penalty. Twelve states and the District of Columbia fall into that category, and in the last decade, very few capital cases were prosecuted federally in those states. This was in part because under Attorney General Janet Reno the absence of the death penalty in a state was not enough to justify making the prosecution of a crime a federal case. That provision has been deleted in the new guidelines.

The new guidelines suggest "an intention to impose the death penalty in states that don't have it," said David I. Bruck, a veteran death penalty lawyer at the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project, which provides assistance to court- appointed lawyers in federal death penalty cases. "In that sense, it is the nationalization of the death penalty," Mr. Bruck added.

A spokeswoman for the Justice Department, Chris Watney, said the guidelines were changed because "the department does not want state sentencing laws to be singled out as a factor in these decisions."

There are now 19 men on federal death row under sentence of death, 14 of them black, but their cases are in various stages of appeal, and it is unlikely that any execution dates will be set this year.

But with President Bush and Mr. Ashcroft both firm supporters of the death penalty, the focus, death penalty lawyers and opponents say, will shift to watching whether there is an increase in prosecutions of federal capital cases.

In response to Mr. Garza's execution, the White House said today that Mr. Bush "believes strongly that the death penalty, when it's administered fairly and effectively, and when defendants have full access to the courts, that the death penalty serves as a deterrent to crime, and that's why he believes in the death penalty."

President Bill Clinton twice delayed Mr. Garza's execution because of statistics that showed glaring racial disparities in the application of the federal death penalty. Mr. Ashcroft promised last week to study the disparities, and some groups had urged a delay until the study was completed.

"The failure of the Bush administration to seriously examine the issues raised by the case of Juan Raul Garza is indefensible and calls into question the commitment of the U.S. government to ensure equal protection of the law in the federal death penalty process," said the Citizens for a Moratorium on Federal Executions, a group of civic and religious leaders formed last year, some of whom support the death penalty.

Senator Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat who is an outspoken opponent of the death penalty, said today that he would continue to push for a federal moratorium. His bill, which is co-sponsored by Senator Jon Corzine, Democrat of New Jersey, has 11 signers, all Democrats.

"If any good can come of the execution of Juan Raul Garza today," Mr. Feingold said, "I hope it will be that more members of Congress will step forward and support a moratorium on executions."

He said he would also be monitoring the Justice Department's review of the application of the federal death penalty. A Justice Department analysis of federal capital cases since 1995 found that in nearly 80 percent of the cases the defendant was a member of a racial or ethnic minority.

Fourteen of the 19 federal death row inmates are black, a greater percentage of blacks than in any state death rows.

Beyond the questions about possible racial bias, the federal system has not been under the criticism that many states have. There are no mentally retarded inmates on federal death row, and no juvenile offenders. And the level of representation in federal capital cases is far better than in most states with high death row populations.

A relatively small number of capital cases get into the federal system, in large part because law enforcement is generally considered a matter for the states.

For the country's first 200 years, federal prosecution of cases where the death penalty was possible was largely limited to espionage, murder on federal property, murder in the course of bank robbery, or, after the Lindbergh kidnapping, interstate kidnapping. Murder of an American president did not become a federal crime until after the assassination of President Kennedy.

Then, in 1988, Congress passed what has become known as the drug kingpin statute, which allows the death penalty in cases in which the murder was committed as part of a drug-running enterprise. This was the law under which Mr. Garza was prosecuted.

In 1994, Congress greatly expanded the number of crimes for which a defendant could be executed. They now include drive-by shootings, carjacking that result in death and destruction of a plane, car or train that results in death.

When the state and federal governments both have jurisdiction to prosecute a crime, Justice Department guidelines say that the federal government should take the case only when there is a "substantial federal interest."

The new guidelines go further, saying that United States attorneys may consider whether the "appropriate punishment upon conviction" is available in the state.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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