Citing Race and Regional Bias, Latino Leaders Join Call for Halt to Federal Executions

June 13, 2001 12:00 am

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NEW YORK–Latino leaders are among a diverse group of prominent citizens, religious leaders and civil rights groups calling upon President Bush to halt the June 19 execution of Juan Raul Garza and declare a moratorium on all federal executions.

The American Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups calling for a moratorium, said government reports show that race and regional disparities, rather than any rational system of justice, may determine who gets the death penalty in the United States.

“Even those who are in favor of the death penalty do not favor executing a person because of the color of his skin or because of where he lives or what country he came from,” said Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, an ACLU national spokeswoman. “Yet the government’s own statistics show a pattern of racial and regional bias that may have contributed to Juan Garza’s death sentence.”

Garza, a 44-year-old Mexican American, “is just one more example of the random and biased nature of the capital punishment in the United States,” Rodriguez added, noting that Garza comes from Texas, one of seven southern states that account for 65 percent of all federal death penalty prosecutions.

The ACLU pointed to a June 4 letter to President Bush signed by members of Citizens for a Moratorium on Federal Executions, who said that although they do not all oppose capital punishment, “all of us agree that current information about the administration of the federal death penalty calls for an immediate executive moratorium on federal executions.”

Among the signers of the letter were Mario G. Obledo, president of the National Coalition of Hispanic Organizations and Arturo Vargas, chair of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda .

Antonia Hernandez, president and general counsel of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), is also a member of the Citizens group and was among those who signed a letter to President Clinton last November that resulted in a six-month reprieve for Garza.

President Clinton granted the reprieve “to allow the Justice Department time to gather and properly analyze more information about racial and geographic disparities in the death penalty.” The study should be completed, he said, “because in this area there is no room for error.”

The preliminary report found that 85 percent — or 17 out of 20 — of those on federal death row are people of color. And in 80 percent — or 548 out of 684 — of the cases submitted to the Attorney General as a possible federal death penalty case, the defendant was not white.

In addition to concerns about race and ethnic bias, the survey revealed inexplicable geographic disparities in the federal capital prosecutions sought.

Garza’s home state of Texas, for example, authorizes the death penalty more than 50 percent of its cases, compared to other death penalty states that only authorize capital cases between 15 to 38 percent of the time.

And there are 21 states in which U.S. Attorneys have either never requested or never obtained authorization to seek the death penalty.

“It’s like a game of Russian roulette: if you live in Texas, you get lethal injection, but if you live in Massachusetts, you get life without parole,” Rodriguez said.

“Whether the Administration chooses to face established facts or not, criminal justice in this country is not blind to color or geography,” she added. “Until the Administration understands and accepts that reality, entire groups of American citizens will have serious cause to question the integrity of the criminal justice system in the United States.”

But last week, in a remarkable — and frankly unbelievable — switch of positions, Attorney General Ashcroft declared that there was no significant racial and geographic disparity in the imposition of the death penalty by the federal government and that he would not authorize further study of the matter. Ashcroft now states that “he knows of no reason not to proceed with the Garza execution.”

“This Administration is seeking political cover for its desire to execute Juan Garza,” Rodriguez said. “Worse, they’re willing to get it at the expense of the truth. It’s that simple.”

This week, a Senate subcommittee will be holding hearings on racial and geographic disparities in the death penalty. The chairman of that subcommittee, Sen. Russell Feingold, D-WI has introduced legislation, which the ACLU vigorously supports, that would impose a moratorium on federal executions while creating a National Commission on the Death Penalty to review fairness in the administration of capital punishment.

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