Drive to execute

John Ashcroft determined to fill death row

By: Chris Demers and Marlene Martin

More death -- that's what Attorney General John Ashcroft is determined to get. Earlier this year, Louis Jones, a Gulf War veteran who suffered from Gulf War Syndrome, became the third person to be executed under Ashcroft's watch. Before Bush and Ashcroft, it had been 38 years since a federal death row prisoner had been put to death.

To keep up this trend, Ashcroft is purposely trying to fill death row to keep the execution machine running. The attorney general is overruling decisions not to seek the death penalty by U.S. attorneys throughout the country. The Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project has tallied 30 cases in the last two years where Ashcroft overrode the judgment of a prosecutor working on a case and demanded the death sentence -- even in cases where there was a plea bargain for a lesser sentence.

Justice Department spokesperson Barbara Comstock says that Ashcroft's decisions are an attempt to create "one standard" for death sentences nationwide and eliminate state-by-state disparities in how the federal death penalty is applied.

But what this really means is that Ashcroft wants to bring more death to places that don't have many executions. Half of the cases where Ashcroft intervened were in New York and Connecticut -- both states with small death rows that rarely execute people.

The entire process reeks of racism. In the cases he is seeking the death penalty overriding the prosecutors, 95 percent are cases involving people of color, so it appears to be racist," said Dick Burr, a Texas defense lawyer and member of the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project.

"He seems to side with prosecutors who recommend not to seek the death penalty against white defendants, but when prosecutors want to drop the death penalty against Black or Latino defendants, he overrides them."

It's as ironic as it is disturbing that Ashcroft is using his powers to try to expand the use of the death penalty -- since this conservative Republican has long been an advocate of taking power away from Washington. It seems that this was his position only until he found himself in the driver's seat.

One of the more bizarre complications of Ashcroft's new policy surfaced in Kentucky, where the attorney general's order overriding federal prosecutors came too late to be considered for trial.

But John Ashcroft isn't going to let that -- or anything else -- stand in the way of his race to execute.