37 cases and counting...

Ashcroft's death mission

By: Liliana Segura

In February 2003, the national media began making noise about John Ashcroft’s disturbing zeal to seek the death penalty in federal cases. Reports disclosed that in twenty-eight federal murder cases, the attorney general stepped in and pulled rank over prosecutors’ decisions not to seek the death penalty. Suddenly, defendants in federal cases across states like New York and Vermont (known for low execution rates) now faced death. In at least one case, prosecutors had already struck a plea bargain for a life sentence. Now this case, among the others, is in disarray. Ashcroft’s message to federal prosecutors is clear: Life sentence? Not good enough. The defendant should die.

Spokespersons for the Justice Department gave wildly disingenuous statements to explain Ashcroft’s motives in overruling his prosecutors. The goal, they say, is to see that the federal death penalty is applied in a "fair and consistent" manner across the country. Fair? It doesn’t seem fair that twenty-three of the twenty-eight defendants now facing death are minorities. Consistent? Absolutely. The federal death house has a 17-6 minority population. The proportions are sickeningly similar.

The boldfaced racism in Ashcroft’s actions have raised the question -- "How can he do this? Does the Attorney General really have this kind of power?" The answer is yes. John Ashcroft is the only person in the country authorized to overrule federal prosecutors. Although he’s not the first attorney general to use this power, he is estimated by the Washington Post to be twice as likely than his predecessor Janet Reno to do so--especially to seek a death sentence.

Ashcroft’s agenda is part of a terrifyingly broad set of power-hoarding measures circulated through the Justice Department in September. Among them is a new policy forcing federal prosecutors to seek permission before negotiating a plea bargain that would save defendants from execution. What this basically means is that federal prosecutors who once had to get approval to seek a death sentence now must get permission not to seek a death sentence. Ashcroft wants prosecutors and judges to seek the harshest penalty available for any federal crime. And Ashcroft wants the names of those who don’t comply.

Backed by the Bush Administration and armed with the Patriot Act, the attorney general is setting a draconian standard of criminal justice. As a former Justice Department official told the New York Times, "It’s a certain kind of uniformity they are going for. They are reshaping the entire country in the shape of the most aggressive jurisdictions." Ashcroft, it appears, would like all states to act like Texas.

To date, Ashcroft has overruled federal prosecutors in an estimated 37 cases. Seven of these cases are in states that don’t have the death penalty, like Massachusetts. Another trial -- that of Emile Dixon -- is taking place in Brooklyn now. The New York CEDP chapter will be at the State Supreme Court on December 4 to send Ashcroft a message of our own: We don’t want your racist death penalty -- not in New York; not anywhere.