FIRST FEDERAL EXECUTION SCHEDULED
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.
RENO PUSHES HATE CRIMES BILL
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.
A senior Civil Rights division attorney explained that federal jurisdiction under current law depends on the vagaries of where crimes happen. One case could only be brought because it had occurred in a 7-11 store where there was a pinball machine, and that fell under the “place of entertainment” clause of the public accommodations protected activity. There could have been a federal prosecution in the case of James Byrd, the Jasper, Texas, man who was dragged to death in 1998, because he was killed on a public street, a benefit administered by a state.
And not only do federal lawyers have to show the crime was committed because of the victim’s race or religion, they must also prove the crime occurred because the victim was engaged in one of those federally protected activities — a very high hurdle.
So sometimes — often — it’s just not possible to find a basis for federal prosecution. And sometimes local authorities cannot or will not proceed. It’s for those occasions that Justice needs the new law.
While all other crimes have been steadily declining, the number of reported hate crimes has grown.
It’s not clear at this point if the crimes are actually increasing, or if it’s just a case of better reporting, but the Civil Rights lawyer also noted that the number of sexual orientation hate crimes has been growing.
And he pointed out that, while there has been no systematic study of the level of violence committed during hate crimes, anecdotally the level of violence in these crimes is extreme; “these are some of the worst crimes there are,” he said.
RENOVATION BRINGS STRANGE BEDFELLOWS
Because of the ongoing Justice Department building renovation, some ceremonies that would ordinarily be held in the Great Hall have to roam around to other buildings and facilities.
Next Monday the Criminal Division will hold its annual awards ceremony at the FBI’s auditorium.
But ironically, the chief honoree, Public Integrity Section Chief Lee Radek, is a sort of sworn enemy of FBI Director Louie Freeh.
These two guys have a mutual dislike and disdain that has now become near legendary. It was only a few months ago that a Freeh memo was leaked that revealed he had tried to get Radek taken completely off the campaign finance investigation way back in 1996.
Freeh and his minions have consistently tried to undermine Radek with Republicans on Capitol Hill only too eager to fix on someone as the evil genius who caused Reno to make all her wrong campaign finance decisions.
And now Radek will receive the coveted Henry Petersen award, the highest honor the Criminal Division can bestow, right there on Freeh’s home turf, his very own temple.
It’s doubtful the director will find time to look in on the ceremony, but if he were dead he’d be spinning in his grave.
Beverley Lumpkin has covered the Justice Department for ABCNEWS for 14 years. Halls of Justice appears every Friday.