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PLN Questions John Ashcroft on the Death Penalty

by Alex Friedmann

On Feb. 13, 2006, former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft gave a presentation in favor of the death penalty at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee as part of the school's Project Dialog series. The series' theme for 2006 was Crime and The Ultimate Punishment.
Ashcroft, who also served as Missouri's Attorney General, Governor of Missouri and a U.S. Senator, resigned after serving as Attorney General under the Bush administration from 2001 through 2005. Perhaps best known for crafting the civil liberty-defying PATRIOT Act, he now operates a lobbying firm, the Ashcroft Group LLC.

Ashcroft voiced his support of capital punishment for two primary reasons: It saves lives (through general deterrence) and it provides closure both for crime victims and society as a whole (calling the death penalty a form of societal self-defense). He also noted that capital punishment deters the criminals who are executed, saying Dead men tell no tales & and commit no crimes.

As Prison Legal News's representative at the event, I asked Ashcroft whether the emphasis on federal death penalty prosecutions against white defendants (citing the on-going capital trials of eight members of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang), while similar capital charges are not brought against minority prison gangs that commit equally heinous crimes, was a perverse form of affirmative action designed to correct" the racial imbalance on federal death row. At the end of 2001, the year Ashcroft was appointed Attorney General, federal death row prisoners were 84% minority. They were 74% minority at the end of 2002, 74% minority at the end of 2003, 64% minority at the end of 2004 and are presently 60% minority, largely due to an increase in the capital prosecution of white defendants.

Ashcroft flatly denied that the federal death penalty process was designed to accomplish racial objectives." He stated capital cases are based solely on the merits of the case and must go before the Capital Case Review Committee, where the race of the defendants are masked." However, Ashcroft failed to mention that the final decision whether to seek the death penalty was up to him as Attorney General, regardless of the Committee's recommendation. In 2001, Ashcroft had testified before a House committee that despite there being a disproportionate percentage of minority prisoners on federal death row, research indicated there was no evidence of racial bias.

The only time that Ashcroft stumbled during his carefully crafted presentation was during the question period, when an audience member challenged the theological basis for capital punishment and cited the example of Jesus saying that those without sin should cast the first stone. Although well known for his fundamentalist religious beliefs as a member of the Assembly of God, Ashcroft dissembled and did not adequately address the question.

Further, Ashcroft did not address the fact that more than 120 actually innocent, wrongfully convicted citizens have been released from death row since 1976 including 3 sentenced to death in Missouri when he was Governor -- due to prosecutorial misconduct, bad science, unreliable snitch testimony, botched investigations and mistaken witnesses. Instead, Ashcroft insisted that the death penalty was a necessary component in the fight against crime because We believe in justice." Or perhaps he meant to say, We believe, injustice.

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