Beverley Lumpkin: Halls of Justice


You may recall that President Clinton postponed the previously scheduled first federal execution, of Juan Raul Garza, until Dec. 12.

In the meantime, however, another inmate of federal death row decided to drop all his appeals and “volunteer.” So David Paul Hammer has now leapfrogged over Garza to the front of the line, and is set to be put to death by lethal injection at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., on Nov. 15.

Hammer, 41, originally was transferred into the federal prison system in 1993 by Oklahoma, where he had been serving a sentence of more than 1,200 years for numerous crimes.

But in April 1996, while locked up in Allenwood, Pa., (one of the original “Club Feds”), Hammer strangled his roommate. He pleaded guilty to the crime in 1998 and was sentenced to death under federal law.

Obviously the first federal execution since 1963 comes at a time when capital punishment generally has been under increasing scrutiny.

Last month the Justice Department finally released figures showing that despite all its careful processes and procedures, there are huge racial and geographic disparities between those who receive the federal death penalty and those who don’t. Garza’s attorneys are citing the study in their arguments for executive clemency.

And all around the country the move for a moratorium seems to be picking up steam.

Clearly the vast majority of citizens still support capital punishment, but more than 30 cities have passed resolutions calling for a moratorium. Studies of the death penalty’s fairness have begun in several states.

A surprising action that garnered much attention was Illinois Gov. George Ryan’s February declaration of a moratorium, after 13 men were released from his state’s death row due to wrongful convictions. The head of the American Bar Association has called for a moratorium by all states that have the death penalty.

At the moment there are 20 inmates of the “special confinement unit” or federal death row, of whom 19 are actual death cases; Aquilla Barnette has had his sentence vacated but is still housed for now in the SCU.

Three other federal prisoners have been sentenced to death by juries but have not yet had their sentences formally confirmed by judges, so they have not yet been sent to the SCU.

The current racial/ethnic breakdown is: 14 black; 4 white; one Hispanic; one Asian.


Attorney General Janet Reno strongly urged Congress to restore proposed hate crimes legislation to appropriations bills still pending.

Pointing out that the House and Senate both separately voted in favor of the measure, she said this shows there’s a bipartisan majority supporting stronger hate crimes laws. Somehow, however, the provision was dropped in conference.

The proposed law has two central provisions. First, regarding race-based crimes, it would eliminate the requirement in current law that the victim must have been engaged in one of six specific “federally protected activities” (education, employment, public facilities and accommodations, voting or serving on a jury, interstate commerce, or enjoying any benefit provided by or administered by a state) for there to be federal jurisdiction.

The second would extend the law to cover hate crimes based on sexual orientation, gender, or disability.

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