Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Ashcroft, Justice Department Campaign to Expand Capital Punishment

by Michael Rigby

During his four years as head of the U.S. Justice Department, Attorney General John Ashcroft has led a sinister campaign to force the federal death penalty in states that have either abolished capital punishment or rarely impose it.
Soon after taking office in 2000, Ashcroft was confronted with the findings of an internal study that revealed most federal death sentences were handed down by just a few federal districts. In fact, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, as of July 1, 2004, 39 of the 32 prisoners under federal death sentences were tried in just four states--Texas, Virginia, Georgia, and Missouri.

To resolve the glaring geographic disparities and stem the attendant tide of criticism, Ashcroft devised a simple solution. He would push federal prosecutors to seek death sentences more often and in more jurisdictions.

But Ashcroft's plan has met with resistance. The public, it seems, is losing its stomach for a punishment that has been shown time and again to be based more on race and economic factors than the type of crime committed. Gallup Polls have found that the percentage of Americans who support the death penalty dropped from 80% in 1994 to 66% ten years later.

Moreover, dozens of death sentences have been overturned in recent years because of faulty DNA evidence, mistaken eyewitness testimony, and suppressed evidence. This general trend of exonerations has also likely contributed to weakened public support. The Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project reports that jurors have refused to impose death in 23 of the 34 federal capital cases tried since 2003.

But Ashcroft, a staunch defender of capital punishment, has not been deterred. In September 2004, a federal capital trial was started in Iowa, where the death penalty was abolished in 1965. Federal prosecutors in Vermont, which has also banned the death penalty, are preparing for a capital trial in 2005. Likewise, a federal capital trial is slated for 2005 in New York, where the last federal execution was in the 1953 Rosenberg spy case. Jurors there have already rejected two Ashcroft capital cases.

Ashcroft's Justice Department has, however, won at least three death sentences in anti-death jurisdictions, including one in January 2004 in Massachusetts, where the death penalty was banned in 1984. Another, in May 2004, involved a murder case on the Navajo Indian reservation, which, for cultural reasons, has traditionally opposed capital punishment.

Ashcroft's morbid mission has led to accusations that the Justice Department is manipulating the legal process and trampling local laws and customs in its headlong rush to make capital punishment a reality in all 50 states.

In Michigan, where the death penalty has been banned since 1846, Ashcroft approved the 2003 capital trial of two brothers accused of a drug-related murder. Although both men were convicted, jurors refused to impose the death penalty. According to the Justice Department, the case was federal because it was a murder related to drug trafficking--a capital crime under federal, law. But veteran defense lawyer Paul Mitchell, who was involved in the case, said it was a routine local murder. "It was no different than many, man) crimes in Michigan that never see the federal courts, and people end up in state prison for life," said Mitchell. "I do not think the federal government has any business coming into our state and attempting to basically force a death penalty on us as a state that does not accept the death penalty and has not until now."

The Justice Department is so determined to expand capital punishment that it is undoing plea agreements and forcing many of its own federal prosecutors--often over their objections--to seek the death penalty.

In Vermont, the Justice Department has asserted jurisdiction in the case of Donald Fell, a drifter accused of three deaths resulting from a cocaine-fueled killing and carjacking spree. Vermont federal prosecutors struck a plea agreement with Fell that would have led to a life sentence--but Ashcroft overruled them. According to Michael Mello, a law professor at Vermont Law School, it is an incredible waste of resources to seek a death sentence in his state. "I am provincial enough to believe that local prosecutors and local judges are the real experts on what local juries are likely to do," he said.

In New York, jurors have rebuffed Ashcroft death cases twice in less than a year. In December 2003 a Brooklyn federal jury refused to impose a death sentence on Jamaican immigrant Emile Dixon after convicting him of killing a witness in a fellow gang member's murder trial. Dixon was sentenced to life after defense attorneys revealed in closing arguments that Ashcroft directly intruded in the case and dismissed New York prosecutors' recommendation against pursuing the death penalty. "You don't have to listen to John Ashcroft," defense attorney Richard Levitt told the jury.

In an effort to avoid the same result in another New York capital case in August 2004, prosecutors convinced federal district judge Jed. S. Rakoff to disallow similar evidence of an Ashcroft intrusion in the penalty phase of that case. Although the jury convicted two Bronx heroin dealers of murdering a police informant, they unanimously opted for life without parole rather than death. Even Judge Rakoff personally disagreed with the Justice Department's tactics. "A reasonable exercise of discretion by the powers that be would not have favored seeking the death penalty in this case," he said.

Ashcroft resigned as Attorney General on November 2, 2004, but there's no reason to believe things will change anytime soon. President Bush himself is an ardent death penalty supporter who as Texas governor presided over an embarrassing 152 executions. No doubt his handpicked nominee to replace Ashcroft, former Texas supreme court judge and longtime White Douse counsel Alberto Gonzales, will carry on the Justice Department's gruesome campaign of death.
Sources: Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Time

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login