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Clinton delays execution under new clemency rules

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WASHINGTON — President Clinton on Wednesday delayed what would have been the first federal execution in nearly 40 years after the Justice Department issued new clemency procedures for inmates on federal death row.

Juan Raul Garza, a drug dealer from Texas who was convicted of three murders seven years ago, was scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection on Saturday.

The president's decision, however, postponed the execution to give Garza time to take advantage of the new clemency guidelines. He is now scheduled to be executed on Dec. 12 at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind.

Gregory Wiercioch, one of Garza's lawyers, said Wednesday night that he planned to use the new clemency procedures to ask Clinton to spare his client's life. "Obviously, we are very pleased that the president has stayed the execution," he said.

Wiercioch also said that in seeking clemency from the president, he would argue that members of minority groups like Garza, as well as defendants in certain parts of the country, are far more likely to face the federal death penalty than are other criminals.

The Justice Department is finishing a report on whether such disparities exist in the application of the federal death penalty, and Wiercioch said he hopes the report will be completed before his client's clemency hearing takes place.

The data collected so far by the Justice Department indicate that minorities make up more than three-quarters of the defendants in federal capital cases and that federal prosecutors in five districts have filed nearly half of the cases in which the federal death penalty was an option.

It is far from clear what Clinton will ultimately decide. He has been a supporter of the death penalty since he was governor of Arkansas, where he refused to commute several death sentences.

But the report being prepared by the Justice Department is almost certain to raise questions about the fairness of the way the federal death penalty is applied, not just in the Garza case but in others as well. Twenty-one men are on federal death row.

A White House official said it was necessary to postpone Garza's execution in order to give him the same opportunity to use the new clemency procedures that other death row inmates will now have.

"This is an incredibly weighty matter," the official said. "Garza would have been treated differently from everyone else on death row. This is far too important based on what happens in the end or doesn't happen."

The president's power to pardon are absolute under the Constitution. In Garza's case, the president's options include a pardon, which would erase the criminal record, or commutation to a life sentence.

Garza, a high school dropout who is the son of migrant farm workers, was the head of a drug-running operation that smuggled in tons of marijuana from Mexico, the federal charges said. He was convicted in 1993 in Brownsville, Texas, of ordering the execution of three people.

Garza has insisted that he was not responsible for the murders. But in seeking clemency, his lawyers do not intend to argue that he is innocent. Instead, they will maintain that it is unfair to put Garza to death because the federal death penalty system, as it currently operates, is discriminatory racially and ethnically and unevenly applied across the nation.