Death Penalty System Racism Disputed

Days before a Hispanic drug dealer is to be executed in the same chamber as Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, death penalty advocates told members of Congress that racism doesn't exist in the federal death penalty system.

``In my experience for seven years as a federal prosecutor, I saw no evidence that the race of defendants or victims had any overt or covert influence on this process,'' said Andrew McBride, former Virginia federal prosecutor who testified before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Wednesday. ``I believe the charge is fabricated by those who wish to block enforcement of the federal death penalty for other reasons.''

Juan Raul Garza, 44, is a convicted drug runner who killed one man and ordered the deaths of two others he thought were informers. His lawyers argue that he should be spared because there are more Hispanics and blacks on federal death row than whites.

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., a death penalty opponent, said Wednesday that 17 of the remaining 19 federal death row inmates are minorities, 14 of whom are black. Besides Garza, no other death row inmates have executions scheduled. Monday's execution of McVeigh was the first time the federal death penalty has been carried out in 38 years.

Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a report last week that said there is no evidence of racial bias in federal death penalty cases.

``The case of Juan Garza illustrates why the call for a moratorium is misguided,'' said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. He said Garza is facing the death penalty because he is guilty of committing heinous crimes, not because he is Hispanic.

Ashcroft's report differed from a report former Attorney General Janet Reno issued in September that led former President Clinton to delay Garza's execution for six months, until June 19. Reno's report said the Justice Department found significant racial and geographic disparities in the system.

Feingold said nothing had been done on Reno's limited study since early January, despite Ashcroft's pledge to continue looking into the issue.

``I believe that the execution of Juan Garza should again be postponed, and indeed, there should be a moratorium on all federal executions until a thorough and independent study by (the National Institute of Justice) is completed and considered,'' Feingold said.

Julian Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said, ``At no time since the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976 have Americans voiced such grave doubts about the fairness and reliability of capital punishment.''