by Michael Kroll
(PNS) SAN FRANCISCO --
Attorney General John Ashcroft, heretofore an ardent
advocate of deferring to local control over federal edict, has now
countermanded his own U.S. attorneys' recommendations for life
imprisonment instead of death at least 28 times.
When it comes to the death penalty, the states and the public are marching in one direction and the federal government in another.
The federal death penalty involves murder on federal property, certain drug kingpin killings and the use of the mail system to transport a murder weapon. Courts have even allowed federal capital prosecutions when interstate commerce is implicated. Typically, a recommendation for sentencing originates with one of the 93 local or regional U.S. attorneys. A committee designated by the attorney general and, ultimately, the attorney general himself or herself must decide between seeking death or "life without release."
Most local U.S. attorneys, attuned to the politics of their jurisdictions, do not recommend death in federal cases that originate in states that have no death penalty (Hawaii, Michigan, West Virginia), or where it is seldom if ever imposed (New York, the Northeast).
Under the Bush administration, however, Washington is redefining that process.
Take the case of David Lien. Accused of participating in the mail-bomb murder of San Jose State student Patrick Hsu, Lien thought he had a deal. In exchange for his guilty plea, then- U.S. Attorney David Shapiro offered to spare him from the death penalty for a life sentence.
Washington overruled the decision, however, forcing Lien to a lengthy trial at taxpayer expense.
Ashcroft's stated rationale for insisting on capital punishment where life in prison had been recommended has been to counter geographic disparity in the imposition of the death penalty. But his actions have reflected longtime racial disparities in death sentences: Ashcroft has sought death against 25 Black, Latino or (such as Lien) Asian defendants, and only two whites.
Ashcroft's spokesperson, Barbara Comstock, insists that he is "committed to the fair implementation of justice." Yet some 75 percent of the defendants the U.S. government has sought to put to death since 1988 have been minorities. About 90 percent of those condemned to death had white victims, though blacks make up half the murder victims in the country.
State juries, which account for 99 percent of all death sentences, are imposing fewer. The reasons include advances in DNA evidence and a growing belief that life without parole is an acceptable alternative to the racial and class disparities that continue to infect the criminal justice system. In some corners there is a general distrust of placing this much power over life and death in the hands of government officials.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, death sentences have declined for the fourth consecutive year.
A brief survey of states reveals the changing landscape:
April 10, 2003 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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