Just about the time Juan Raul Garza's body was turning cold, in the federal death chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana, on Tuesday, federal prosecutors in Texas announced they would seek to sentence as many as seven other men to death under the same 1988 federal drug kingpin statute used to execute the South Texas marijuana smuggler and murderer.
The Drug Kingpin statute calls for the death penalty for murders committed in the course of a drug trafficking offense.
In an indictment handed down Tuesday in Ft. Worth, grand jurors charged 24 people -- primarily black and Hispanic -- with participation in a local marijuana and cocaine trafficking ring. Seven of those indicted are charged in the separate killings of three people during the course of the trafficking conspiracy. Prosecutors can seek the death penalty against those seven defendants.
Lawyers for two of the defendants told the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram they had already received notice from federal prosecutors that they would do so. Federal District Attorneys must also gain an okay from the Department of Justice in order to seek the death penalty.
Garza, 44, was the first person to be executed under the 1988 federal Anti-Drug Abuse Act. President Clinton had stayed his execution pending a Justice Department study of possible racial bias in the federal death penalty process, but Attorney General Ashcroft last week pronounced himself satisfied with that process.
"There is no evidence of racial bias in the administration of the federal death penalty," Ashcroft told the House Judiciary Committee.
The population of federal death row is 85% minority, with 14 blacks, 2 Hispanics, and 3 whites. Non-whites also accounted for 83% of all potential death penalty cases brought by federal prosecutors in the last five years. In the states, nearly half of all condemned murderers are white. Ashcroft did not address this discrepancy.
Although Ashcroft noted that prosecutors brought capital charges against a higher proportion of white defendants eligible for it, he failed to mention that four-fifths of the 973 capital defendants were minorities. Nor did he explain the study's finding that whites charged with capital crimes at the federal level were twice as likely as minorities to escape the death penalty by entering into a plea bargain.
The Justice Department study indicates that once people are charged with a federal capital crime, race had little effect on whether they would get the death penalty. The key question is why such a large proportion of people charged with federal capital crimes are non-white.
Robert S. Litt, an associate deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, told the Washington Post: "I don't think most anybody believes that prosecutors are consciously making decisions based on race. But the difficult question they haven't answered is: Why are 80% of people charged with capital-eligible crimes black or Hispanic? Why Juan Garza and not John Gotti?"
Justice Department officials had several responses, some of which came uncomfortably close to race baiting. Pointing to Virginia, one of the leading states for federal death penalty cases, the study asserted that "the defendants in these cases were not White because the members of the drug gangs that engage in large-scale drug trafficking in the Eastern District of Virginia are not White."
"Do you mean to say that they really know there are no white-dominated drug rings in all of the Eastern District of Virginia?" asked Prof. Samuel Gross of Columbia University. In a reference to racial profiling, he told the Post: "To assert that fact with no supporting evidence does really begin to sound like the New Jersey State Police."
Criticisms notwithstanding, the executions of federal inmates will proceed, Ashcroft said.