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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, June 19, 2001

Garza death sentence raises deep questions

There seems to be little doubt about the guilt of Juan Raul Garza, who is scheduled for federal execution today.

Garza, the former head of a drug-smuggling ring, was convicted of murdering one man and ordering the murders of several others.

While many will conclude that Garza's execution is just, this case sheds a harsh light on the terrible uncertainties and elemental unfairness of the capital punishment system.

For starters, there is the serious question of overrepresentation of minorities facing death. According to former associate deputy attorney general James Orensteinz 83 percent of federal defendants charged with multiple murders between 1995 and 2000 were from minority groups. There may be a rational explanation for this, but it is not yet at hand. In fact, the National Institute of Justice has been directed to study whether the system is tainted by bias. By the time the study is complete, Garza will be gone.

Then there is the claim made by Garza's lawyers, which the U.S. Supreme Court refused this week to hear. Under law, juries in capital cases must be told they can choose specifically between death or "life imprisonment without possibility of parole." That 1994 law was not in place when Garza was first convicted, so the prosecutor was able to raise the thought that any sentence other than death left the possibility that Garza would one day be back on the street.

Studies have shown that jurors who know they can keep a person in prison for life are less likely to choose a death sentence. Would they have in Garza's case? Who knows?

None of this says anything about the enormity of Garza's crimes or the certainty that he is guilty. But it does point out some frightening things about the imperfection of our capital punishment system.