The Case of Juan Garza - Post-Trial Period

The Case of Juan Garza

Post-Trial Period

Appealing the Conviction and Death Sentence

Direct Appeal

In federal capital cases, the conviction and sentence of death are subject to automatic review by the United States Court of Appeals. Further review may be sought in the Supreme Court of the United States by a procedure called “certiorari.” The U.S. Supreme Court has complete discretion to grant or deny certiorari; it need not give any reason for its decision not to review a case. The automatic appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals and any certiorari review of it are collectively called the “direct appeal.”

Garza and his attorneys filed their direct appeal in 1994 with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. In the direct appeal, they challenged, among other items they deemed procedural errors, the jury selection process, jury instructions, and the inclusion of certain pieces of evidence. The Court addressed all of Garza’s claims for appeal in U.S. v. Flores and Garza, 63 F. 3d 1342 (5th Circuit, 1995). The Court confirmed that the voir dire process used in selecting jurors for Garza’s trial was adequate, that penalty phase jury instructions were valid, and that the inclusion of tape recordings and co-conspirator testimony (Flores cousins and Srader) did not violate Garza’s rights. The Court of Appeals affirmed Garza’s conviction and sentence and later denied a motion for rehearing. In 1996, the United States Supreme Court denied Garza’s petition for a writ of certiorari and petition for rehearing.

Post-Conviction Proceedings

Following the direct appeal, a defendant can still challenge the constitutionality of the judgment through a series of petitions in federal courts. These are called post-conviction proceedings since typically they come after the conviction becomes final. Strictly speaking, these are not appeals of earlier decisions but rather civil suits challenging the constitutionality of the conviction or sentence. In federal court, they are based on the federal Constitution.

Post-conviction proceedings are sometimes referred to as habeas corpus proceedings, particularly in federal court. Habeas corpus is Latin for “you have the body,” and the petitioner is asking the warden of the prison where the petitioner is held to justify continuing to imprison the “body” of the petitioner. (See Legal Remedies).

On December 1, 1997, Garza’s attorneys filed a federal habeas corpus petition. The petition asked for relief on the grounds that the government had violated Garza’s 5th Amendment rights under the Due Process Clause by introducing evidence on the four murders that occurred in Mexico for which Mr. Garza had never been arrested, charged, or convicted.

Following the submission of Garza’s habeas petition, the U.S. District Court denied Garza’s motion to vacate his sentence in April of 1998, and Garza’s attorneys petitioned the Court of Appeals for permission to appeal this decision. The Court of Appeals denied Garza permission to appeal the District Court’s decision in early 1999 and denied a petition for rehearing in April of 1999 as well. In November of 1999, the United States Supreme Court denied certiorari regarding Garza’s request for permission to appeal. Two years later, Garza again raised challenges to his death sentence in the Court of Appeals for the Fifth and Seventh Circuits. In the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, the habeas proceeding (Garza v. Lappin, 253 F.3d 918 (7th Cir. 2001)), based on the decision of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (See “Garza’s Initial Petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights” below), was denied (533 U.S. 924 (2001)). Garza’s challenge in the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit was also denied (In re Garza, 253 F.3d 201 (5th Cir. 2001)), and soon thereafter, the Supreme Court denied Garza’s request for leave to file an original habeas petition in that Court.

Garza’s Initial Petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

Flag of the Organization of American StatesAfter Garza’s direct appeal and the first habeas petition were denied, he petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (“the Commission”) asserting that his death sentence violated Articles I (Right to Life), XVIII (Right to a Fair Trial), and XXVI (Right to Due Process of Law) of the American Declaration. The American Declaration is a statement of human rights norms that the U.S. has not only adopted, but also helped to draft through the Organization of American States (“OAS”). The American Declaration, however, is not a binding legal document, nor is the IACHR Commission a court of law (See “What are the IACHR and the Organization of American States?”).

Because the United States is an active member of the OAS, it participated in proceedings before the Commission. On July 20, 2000, the U.S. government submitted its response to Garza’s petition, asserting that he had failed to “state facts that constitute a violation of rights set forth in the American Declaration.” The government’s response noted that the District Court found that neither Garza’s Constitutional rights, nor the rights set forth in the American Declaration, had been violated during his trial or sentence.

Changes in Clemency Procedure

While Garza’s claim before the Commission was pending, the government set an August 5, 2000 execution date. Garza was to be the first federal prisoner executed since 1963. By this time, Garza had a new lead attorney, Greg Wiercioch, who led the legal efforts to commute Garza’s death sentence. On August 2, 2000, just a few days before Garza’s execution was to occur, new guidelines for seeking presidential clemency in federal death penalty cases went into effect. These new guidelines were the first modifications in federal capital clemency procedures since the reinstatement of the federal death penalty in 1988.

The procedures provided that death row inmates must be given at least 120 days notice of the date of their execution. After an inmate receives notice of the execution date, he or she has 30 days to ask the president to commute their sentence. The president retains the sole power of clemency. The new guidelines also gave attorneys for death row inmates an opportunity to make an oral presentation to a clemency panel and gave the relatives of victims the chance to make their own oral presentation to the clemency panel with the assistance of the prosecutors in the case. The clemency process, from the initial filing to the final decision, would take around 90 days.

In order to give Garza the benefit of the new procedures, President Clinton granted him a reprieve until December 12, 2000.

Garza’s Subsequent Petition to the IACHR

On September 22, 2000, Garza submitted a request to the Commission to raise additional matters. The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) had just released a report on September 12, 2000, entitled A Report on the Federal Death Penalty System: A Statistical Survey (1988-2000). The report contained statistics revealing geographic and racial disparities in the administration of the federal death penalty. It found that 30% of all federal death row inmates were prosecuted in Texas. Likewise, the Attorney General approved 50% of the cases that federal prosecutors in Texas submitted to be tried as capital cases. The report also found that during 1988-2000, 81% of federal death sentences were given to minorities. Hispanics were 2.3 times more likely than non-Hispanics to be authorized for federal capital prosecution. The Commission declined to consider the new evidence stemming from the DOJ Report.

Although it declined to hear the new evidence, the Commission held a formal hearing on Garza’s case on October 12, 2000, with both Garza’s attorneys and U.S. government officials in attendance. On December 4, 2000, the Commission released a preliminary, unpublished opinion in favor of Garza. The Commission found that the inclusions of the uncharged foreign offenses were violations of Garza’s right to a fair trial and to due process under Articles XVIII and XXVI of the American Declaration. In addition, the Commission found that Garza’s death sentence was arbitrary and capricious under Article I of the American Declaration and that to execute him would be a deliberate violation of his right to life under Article I. The Commission then gave the United States 5 days to respond because of Garza’s impending execution set for December 12, 2000. However, 5 days before the execution, President Clinton gave Garza a 6-month reprieve so that the DOJ could further analyze discrepancies in the application of the federal death penalty.

On April 4, 2001, the Commission ratified and issued a final, published decision in favor of Garza. Bolstered by the support of the Commission, on April 23, 2001, Garza’s attorneys filed a second federal post-conviction proceeding in the U.S. federal courts. They focused on the Commission’s report and asked for relief on the ground that Garza’s rights under the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man had been violated when evidence of the four unadjudicated murders committed in Mexico was introduced at his sentencing hearing. The petition argued that the Commission’s findings were binding on the United States under the OAS Charter because the U.S. is a member of the OAS. However, the American Declaration itself is not officially designated as a treaty; therefore, courts in the United States had frequently held that the U.S. is not legally bound by the Declaration or by the Commission’s decisions and opinions interpreting the Declaration. In Garza’s habeas case, the lower federal courts rejected his IACHR claims on this ground, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review their decisions (See “Post-Conviction Proceedings” above).


Garza’s attorneys filed a clemency petition with President Clinton on September 28, 2000 based upon 5 issues:

  • Racial and geographic bias in the federal death penalty system
  • The failure of the government to afford critically important procedural safeguards
  • Disproportionality of sentence
  • Disregard of international law in securing Garza’s return from Mexico
  • Adequacy of a life sentence.

Racial and Geographic Bias in the Federal Death Penalty System

Garza’s attorneys highlighted the facts that Garza was a Hispanic man tried in Texas in 1993. All of these features of his case suggested concerns raised in the DOJ’s September 2000 Report on the Federal Death Penalty System: A Statistical Survey (1988-2000). Garza’s attorneys argued that when and where Garza was tried, as well as his race, made it more likely that the U.S. attorneys prosecuting the case would recommend seeking the death penalty. According to Garza’s attorneys, the federal death penalty system itself was biased against offenders with Garza’s characteristics, and he was unfairly sentenced to death partly because of these factors.

In light of the DOJ report and Garza’s impending execution, many death penalty organizations called upon President Clinton, and subsequently President Bush, for a moratorium on the death penalty. One group, Citizens for a Moratorium on Federal Executions, garnered the support of many religious and political leaders in an effort to sway the President to put the federal death penalty on hold until more research could be done to determine the fairness of its application. The American news media also commented heavily on the implications of the DOJ report, both in general and in relation to Garza’s impending execution.

The Failure of the Government to Afford Critically Important Procedural Safeguards

In his clemency petition, Garza claimed that his sentencing jury had been inadequately informed about the term of imprisonment he would have to serve if the jury did not sentence him to death. The prosecution had told the jurors in closing argument:

The defense says, well, he is going to die in prison, but the law is twenty years to life. We don’t know that he is going to die in prison. The Judge can give him any term…. [T]en years…is more than most murderers spend in jail these days, as we all know (from Clemency Petition).

This argument was based upon the range of sentences – twenty years to life – that is formally prescribed by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 for the crime of homicide committed in furtherance of a continuing criminal enterprise. However, the prosecution failed to disclose to the jury that the actual sentence that Garza would be required to serve if he was not executed would be life imprisonment without possibility of parole (LWOP). The Federal Sentencing Guidelines in effect at that time made LWOP the minimum possible sentence if the jury found (as it did) that the homicide was intentional.

The prosecution also raised issues of Garza's future dangerousness if he did not receive a sentence of death. The U.S. Supreme Court held in a 1994 case, Simmons v. South Carolina, that when a defendant’s future dangerousness is put into issue at the sentencing phase of a capital trial, the defendant is entitled as a matter of fundamental fairness (required by the Due Process Clause of the federal Constitution) to have the jury accurately informed that the only alternative to a death sentence is LWOP, if this is in fact the case. But on Garza’s 1995 appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that the Simmons rule did not apply to Garza’s case on the technical ground that at the time of the lawyers’ closing arguments and jury instructions, Garza’s jury had not yet made the finding that his homicides were intentional. (That finding was made during penalty-phase jury deliberations under the federal sentencing procedure used at Garza’s trial, whereas in the Simmons case, which was tried under a different procedure, the jury finding which precluded any sentence less than LWOP had been made at the guilt/innocence phase of the trial.)

In 2001, the Supreme Court decided another South Carolina case, Shafer v. South Carolina, which suggested that the distinction that the Court of Appeals had drawn between Garza’s case and Simmons was unfounded. However, by this time, Garza’s appeal and his first post-conviction petition had already been denied. When Garza requested permission to file a second post-conviction petition in the light of Shafer, the Court of Appeals ruled that he did not come within the very narrow set of circumstances under which a criminal conviction can be challenged in a second or successive post-conviction proceeding.

Furthermore, according to Garza’s lawyers, the prosecution’s introduction of evidence about the four unadjudicated murders violated Garza’s right to a fair trial. The right to a fair trial, they argued, is guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and prohibits the imposition of a death sentence based on purported factual information that the defendant has no opportunity to deny or explain. They pointed out that ten of the twelve non-statutory aggravating factors found by the jury – factors that made it more likely the jury would sentence Garza to death – were related to the unadjudicated murders. They also pointed out that Garza’s defense attorneys at trial were severely handicapped in their ability to defend him against the charges that he had ordered or committed these four murders, because of the difficulty of conducting a full factual investigation of criminal incidents that had occurred outside of the United States.

Disproportionality of Sentence

Despite the fact that other co-defendants were equally culpable in the crimes, all three co-perpetrators received significantly more lenient sentences than Garza. Israel and Jesus Flores both received 10-year sentences, and Manuel Flores received a sentence of life in prison. Likewise, Garza’s attorneys noted, Garza’s sentence of death was disproportionate when compared with the sentences imposed in other cases of death eligible homicides similar to those for which Garza was convicted.

Disregard of International Law in Securing Garza’s Return from Mexico

Garza was extradited from Mexico, which, like many other countries, refuses to extradite individuals to the United States if they are charged with crimes that could carry the death penalty. The U.S. never made its intentions to seek the death penalty known to Mexican officials after Garza’s capture in November of 1992; Garza was not charged with murder until after his extradition to the United States. Thus, according to Garza’s attorneys, executing Garza would contravene the U.S.’s treaty obligations to Mexico.

Adequacy of a Life Sentence

Lastly, Garza’s lawyers stressed the fact that they were not calling for the release of Garza, but for his death sentence to be commuted to life without the possibility of parole. They noted that Garza had no record of violence in prison and he would be “substantially punished” by life imprisonment.

Further Developments in Garza’s Case and the Government’s Response

In addition to the clemency petition, Garza submitted a clemency video to President Clinton. In the weeks before June 19, 2001, Garza’s third scheduled execution date, Amnesty International and the Commission once more requested that the United States comply with the Commission’s finding. The United States opposed Garza’s contention that his rights under the Constitution and the American Declaration were violated and stated that the decisions of the IACHR are not enforceable against the United States.

On June 6, 2001, the DOJ released Federal Death Penalty System: Supplemental Data, Analysis and Revised Protocols for Capital Case Review, the supplemental study to The Federal Death Penalty System: A Statistical Survey (1988-2000). This report found "no evidence that minority defendants are subjected to bias or otherwise disfavored in decisions concerning capital punishment." On June 18, 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft released a statement reiterating the main points of the Supplemental Report and disputed many of the claims made in Garza’s clemency petition. Ashcroft reiterated Garza’s guilt for both the murders in the United States and the murders in Mexico and dismissed charges of bias in the federal death penalty system.

"The facts of Garza's case are important," Ashcroft stated. "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…. I do not believe there is any reason to further delay his execution."

In a June 19, 2001 interview with the New York Times, Mark Patterson, one of the U.S. Attorneys who led the case against Garza, called him "the most violent man I've ever prosecuted."

President George W. Bush had denied Garza’s clemency petition. The execution was to proceed.

The Execution

By June 19, 2001, Juan Garza’s scheduled execution date, the Supreme Court had rejected Garza's latest appeals.

A little over 24 hours before his execution, Garza was transferred to the holding cell adjacent to the death chamber in the Terre Haute, Indiana, federal prison. His last meal included steak, French fries, onion rings, three pieces of bread and a diet cola.

On the day of his execution, a guard escorted Garza to the death chamber where he was strapped to a gurney. The room surrounding the execution chamber contained witnesses from the media and others involved in the case, including family members of his victims. Garza had asked his family not to attend his execution.

Before his execution, Garza said to both the Warden, Harley Lappin, and to the victims’ family members, "I want to say that I'm sorry. I apologize for the pain and grief that I caused. I ask for your forgiveness, and God bless." Warden Lappin then read Garza’s sentence, after which specialists in an adjoining room injected Garza with the three different chemicals that would ultimately kill him. Juan Raul Garza was pronounced dead at 7:09 a.m.

Issues Raised by the Garza Case

The case of Juan Garza highlights issues that are prevalent in many other capital cases. The following links will take you to a portion of the Web site designed to provide substantive information on each of these important issues.