Ashcroft Overides His Prosecutors on Death Penalty Decisions

The New York Times has a third article today on Ashcroft's demand for the death penalty against the advice of his local prosecutors.
Attorney General John Ashcroft has ordered United States attorneys in New York and Connecticut to seek the death penalty for a dozen defendants in cases in which prosecutors had recommended against or did not ask for capital punishment, according to lawyers who follow the issue. Those are nearly half of all the cases nationwide in which Mr. Ashcroft has rejected prosecutors' recommendations in a death penalty case....

Mr. Ashcroft's aggressive approach in the New York region was criticized yesterday by lawyers who said the best way to eliminate geographic disparities in capital punishment was not to increase its use but to reduce it. No federal court jury in New York City has yet returned a verdict for the death penalty since the revised federal capital punishment laws were passed more than a decade ago.

"They want to set a consistent national standard for these cases," said David A. Ruhnke, who represents a defendant in the new Manhattan case, "but the standards they're using are the standards used by Texas district attorneys running for re-election."
We've been particularly interested in this controversy because one of the cases is in Denver (as of this writing no decision by Ashcroft has been announced). Here is our post from last week on the controversy.

Former prosecutors and defense lawyers interviewed by the Times explain here why Ashcroft's interference threatens the independence of prosecutors and could lead to the undermining of the entire system. The federal system is based on cooperation deals--on defendants ratting off their associates in exchange for promises of leniency by prosecutors. Its the only way to get out from under the draconian sentencing guidelines, particularly in drug cases. And now it's turning out that the prosecutors can't deliver because the Almighty has come down and said at the last minute and in his infinite wisdom, "Deal's off. That one dies." This will be the death-knell for cooperation agreements. What defendant is going to take a deal knowing that the Prosecutor who's offering it to him may not be able to live up to it?

On the one hand, there's nothing we'd like to see fail more than the morally bankrupt system of purchased testimony that has become the very foundation of the federal criminal justice system. On the other hand, we are far more distrurbed that this Attorney General is being allowed to run amuck and make life or death decisions all by himself, against the advice of his career prosecutors. And that at a time it has become abundantly, if not crystal clear, that the death penalty system in this country is broken, he elects to put more people to death. Someone needs to tell him two wrongs don't make it right.

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