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GARZA set to die amid questions about federal death penalty

TERRE HAUTE, Indiana (AP) _ Juan Raul Garza, a murderous Texas drug kingpin, struggled to stave off lethal injection Tuesday morning in what would be the second execution by the U.S. government in eight days.

Garza, 44, was convicted of killing one man and ordering the deaths of two others as part of a marijuana smuggling ring he operated from Brownsville, Texas.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to delay Garza's execution, rejecting an appeal that said the jury was not told it could sentence him to life in prison without parole. The court was also expected to rule Monday on a separate appeal based on Garza's claim that his death sentence violates international human rights treaties.

Garza was moved to the isolation cell in the death house at the U.S. Penitentiary, where Timothy McVeigh died by chemical injection last week in the first federal execution since 1963.

Death penalty opponents and some former U.S. Justice Department officials questioned whether Garza, a Mexican-American born in the United States, would have been sentenced to death if he were white or had committed his crimes elsewhere.

Six of the 19 men now on federal death row were sentenced in Texas. All are minorities.

``There is a question of whether the way the system is set up produces arbitrary and discriminatory results,'' said Robert Litt, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department of former U.S. President Bill Clinton. ``I think somebody ought to get some answers and understand what's going on.''

A Justice Department study released last year found wide racial and geographical disparities in the use of the federal death penalty. Because of that study, then-President Clinton delayed Garza's December execution date, saying, ``In this area, there is no room for error.''

A Justice Department review released earlier this month found no evidence of bias in federal death penalty sentences. Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered further study but also said in a statement Monday that there was no evidence of racial bias in Garza's death sentence and no reason to delay his execution any further.

``Juan Raul Garza's guilt is not in doubt,'' Ashcroft said.

Garza was convicted of murdering a man by shooting him five times in the head and neck. Ashcroft said Garza also ordered the murders of two other men, paying the killers dlrs 10,000 each for one of the slayings and money and a car for the other.

``The facts of Garza's case are important,'' Ashcroft said. ``Seven of Garza's eight victims were Hispanic; the prosecutor in the case is Hispanic; the presiding judge is Hispanic; at least six of the jurors are Hispanic; and all of the jurors individually certified that race, color, religious beliefs, national origin and sex were not involved in reaching their respective decisions.''

The original Justice Department study showed that 80 percent of defendants charged with capital offenses over a five-year period were minorities. The study also found that just nine of the 94 U.S. attorney districts accounted for about 43 percent of all cases in which prosecutors sought the death penalty.

Garza's attorneys cited 26 cases involving crimes similar to Garza's where prosecutors did not seek the federal death penalty.

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