President Clinton will consider a request that he suspend federal executions, the White House said Friday. A spokesman said Clinton is "certainly concerned" about Illinois' decision to halt executions and evaluate how that state handles the death penalty.
The suspension request, made in a letter from Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., is being reviewed by White House counsel, spokesman Joe Lockhart said. But he said that does not guarantee that Clinton would act on the matter soon.
"The president was certainly concerned by the issues raised by the governor of Illinois," Lockhart said. "If there are legitimate concerns that are brought to us, we will look at the concerns. But I can't predict anything beyond that until we've had a chance to study the issue."
Feingold based his request on Gov. George Ryan's move halt of executions in Illinois until authorities determine whether the death penalty is administered fairly. Since 1976, Illinois has executed 12 prisoners. But 13 death row inmates have been exonerated since 1987 through appeals, DNA evidence or, in a few cases, persistent investigation by college journalism students.
In a letter dated Wednesday, Feingold asked that Clinton suspend federal executions and have Attorney General Janet Reno thoroughly review how the federal death penalty has been used, "in light of the serious questions raised in Illinois and elsewhere."
"Before the federal government executes anyone, the Justice Department should be absolutely certain that innocents have not been condemned to death," Feingold wrote. "It must ensure that the federal death penalty is applied in a fair and just manner."
According to Feingold, sponsor of a bill to abolish the federal death penalty, federal courts have sentenced 21 people to die, three-quarters of whom are minorities.
Among the condemned is Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
Another, Juan Raul Garza, has exhausted his appeals and could become the first federally executed prisoner since 1963. Garza, head of a marijuana-trafficking ring in Brownsville, Texas, was sentenced to die for the murders of three men he suspected of being police informants.
Nationally, 85 people have been freed from death row since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.