Race, Death And The Feds

Pristine and green-tiled, at first glance it could be confused with a hospital operating room. Except for the gurney in the center of the space, which is fitted with restraining straps. And the mechanical injection machine, calibrated to deliver a deadly cocktail of sodium pentathol and potassium chloride. After four years of planning and construction, the federal death chamber in Terre Haute, Ind., will soon be open for business. On Aug. 5, Juan Raul Garza, a convicted drug dealer and murderer, is scheduled to be the first prisoner executed by the federal government since John F. Kennedy was president.

In the last few weeks, the Justice Department has been working to finalize plans for Garza's death. But officials are doing so quietly--operating, as one put it, "below radar." These days, no one in the administration--least of all Al Gore--wants to invite too much attention to the death penalty. While George W. Bush has endured endless questions about the fairness of Texas executions, the White House isn't eager to advertise its own efforts to put federal offenders to death.

They may not be able to keep it quiet for long. Garza's lawyers plan to join with death-penalty critics in a campaign for clemency. The issue isn't innocence: Garza has admitted to murdering three drug dealers who worked for him. But in an effort to drag Clinton and Gore into the controversy, Garza's lawyers claim the federal death penalty has proven to be racially biased--condemning a disproportionate number of blacks and Hispanics to death.

The numbers certainly raise questions. Of the 21 inmates who have been on the new federal death row in Indiana, 17 are black or Hispanic--a higher percentage than on most state death rows. Under Clinton, the Justice Department has approved 175 death-penalty cases. Three fourths of them were against minority defendants. Justice has stringent rules that are supposed to weed out racial bias. Federal prosecutors must file for permission when seeking death, and Attorney General Janet Reno reviews every case personally. Aides say she often lugs home an armload of files to read in the evening and sometimes calls them in the middle of the night with questions. "She really agonizes over these," says one aide. In the end, Reno has approved death penalty requests nine out of 10 times.

Justice officials dispute any charges of bias. A tough 1994 anti-crime law gave Justice new authority to prosecute many drug and gun cases once handled by the states--crimes that are statistically more likely to involve minority defendants. Even so, Reno has long worried about the problem. In February, Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder launched an internal study of the department's handling of death-penalty cases. But officials have yet to disclose the findings while they debate what conclusions to draw.

So far, the administration and Gore have successfully ducked questions about racial bias, pointing to the Justice study as evidence that the administration takes the problem seriously. But the White House--and by extension, Gore--may yet be drawn into the death-penalty debate. In 1996 Clinton signed an election-year antiterrorism bill that included a measure severely restricting the ability of state death-row inmates to introduce new evidence. At the time, a White House lawyer, Christopher Cerf, passionately argued against the provision. "We all need to know that if we do this, it's going to cost an innocent person their life," he warned in one meeting with the president's aides. His pleas were ignored. Lawyers for Gary Graham, who was executed last week in Texas, said that they were unable to introduce new witnesses who might have cleared their client because of the '96 law. As the questions over guilt and innocence on death row persist, George W. Bush may not be the only one with some explaining to do.