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EXECUTION looming, family prepares for convicted killer's death

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) _ In his teen-age years, Juan Raul Garza worked the fields in Michigan with his parents, who were migrant farmhands, and sold fruit door to door. He eventually saved up money for a bed to replace the mats he'd always slept on.

But that enterprising nature evolved into trouble after Garza returned to his hometown of Brownsville, Texas, where he started a drug smuggling operation. He would later kill and order the deaths of others.

Now Garza himself is scheduled to die Tuesday by chemical injection, the second federal inmate put to death in just eight days. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was executed June 11, the first to be put to death since 1963.

Garza's acts have not drawn as much public attention as McVeigh's more notorious crime, which killed 168 people in April 1995.

And unlike the unmarried bomber, Garza has a wife and four children with whom he has remained close during his nine years in prison.

``He's still my dad,'' said 24-year-old daughter Norma Garza. She and the rest of the family planned to see Garza for the last time on Sunday _ Father's Day.

While the family says Garza is not the monster he's been made out to be, prosecutors say he was one of the most violent drug dealers in south Texas.

His death sentence stems from a series of brutal murders. In one case, he shot a suspected informant in the head, dragged his body into a field and shot the man four more times, leaving his corpse to rot. In two other cases, Garza ordered men killed.

``I've been prosecuting for 15 years, and he's the worst individual I've ever prosecuted,'' said Mark Patterson, the chief federal prosecutor at Garza's trial. ``He was the guy in charge and he was the guy who had the people killed. In his little world, he was the top of the food chain.''

Along with the three murders of which he was convicted, prosecutors say Garza was suspected of numerous other killings, including ordering the death of the husband of eldest daughter Maribel, and having a woman beaten to death because she laughed at him in a bar.

Garza's attorneys say those additional accusations are unfounded.

They also say that Garza is representative of problems in the way the federal death penalty is applied.

Garza, 44, is Hispanic, one of 17 minorities among the remaining 19 men on federal death row. He was convicted and sentenced in Texas, which has sent six men to federal death row, more than any other state.

In a clemency appeal to President Bush, Garza's attorneys have cited more than 20 other cases where similar crimes were committed in other states but the federal death penalty was never sought.

``I think Juan Garza's case is going to present the Bush administration with its first real test on its commitment to racial equality in the criminal justice system,'' Garza attorney Gregory Wiercioch said.

The Justice Department said recently it found no evidence of racial or geographical bias in the use of the federal death penalty, but Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered further studies by an independent panel.

That doesn't impress opponents of Garza's death sentence.

``We're going to engage in this investigation, determine that indeed he was improperly selected for a death sentence based on his race, and then say 'Sorry'?'' asked Elisabeth Semel, director of the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Representation Project. ``Then it's too late.''

Garza's second wife, Elizabeth, the mother of his 10-year-old daughter Elizabeth and 12-year-old son Juan Garza Jr., feels it is an unfair system that is about to make her a widow and her children fatherless. She acknowledges that Garza was involved in killings, but says that doesn't justify another death.

``I know he's not perfect, and he's admitted what he's done,'' she said. ``Killing somebody else is not going to bring anyone back.''

Juan Jr., struggling to understand his father's fate, will have memories of fishing trips and horseback riding with his father.

``I love horses,'' he said. ``But I don't get to do that anymore.''

During one recent prison visit, the boy started to cry.

``You have to be strong,'' Garza told his son. ``It's OK to cry a little, but then it's time to be strong.''

Family members said Garza has taken time to advise them on how to live after he's gone.

``He knows that what he did in the past is wrong, and he wants us to grow up different than the way he is,'' Norma Garza said. ``Now he wants us to break that cycle and be different.''
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