WASHINGTON -- The last president to sign a death warrant for a federal inmate was John F. Kennedy in 1963. One of President Clinton's last Oval Office decisions may be whether to sign the next one.
Clinton on Wednesday postponed the scheduled execution of a Texas drug dealer until Dec. 12, five weeks before the close of Clinton's term. The inmate, Juan Raul Garza, had been set for execution Aug. 5 at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind.
In the meantime, Garza will use new government procedures to ask Clinton for clemency, in much the same way that state death-row inmates make last appeals to their governors.
Garza's Houston attorney, Gregory Wiercioch, said he intends to ask Clinton to commute Garza's sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The clemency request will focus on whether minorities and residents of just a few, mostly southern, states have been disproportionately sentenced to death under the federal system.
"Racial disparities ... and where these cases come from makes a big difference," in whether an inmate is sentenced to death, Wiercioch said Wednesday.
The Justice Department is studying that same question but has not yet issued a report.
As the Garza execution loomed, the Clinton administration also began reviewing federal procedures for carrying out the death penalty, including the apparatus needed to file a clemency appeal. Justice Department lawyers then decided to write a new set of rules, which were released Wednesday.
The new, 10-page clemency guidelines allow an inmate 30 days to file for clemency after an execution date is set. The Justice Department then has 90 days to review the request and make a recommendation to the president.
The rules provide an opportunity for the inmate's attorney to make an oral presentation to the Justice Department's pardon attorney. They also provide a chance for families of the victims to make their own oral presentation to the pardon attorney.
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