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Stopping government’s culture of death
John Ashcroft’s death-penalty crusade is misguided and immoral

ATTORNEY GENERAL John Ashcroft explains his decision to seek the death penalty even in cases in which federal prosecutors have recommended against it as an attempt to ensure that the federal death penalty is applied equally across the nation. In fact, what Ashcroft is doing is imposing Texas-style justice on the rest of us.

To date, Ashcroft has approved the use of the death penalty in 95 federal cases. In 38 of these, he did so without a request from prosecuting US attorneys. And in eight of those 38 cases, Ashcroft is pursuing the death penalty in jurisdictions without state approval for the death penalty.

"He is attempting to impose his own personal philosophy about the death penalty on the entire country and on areas that are far less enthusiastic about the death penalty than is Attorney General Ashcroft," says Kevin McNally, of the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project, which assists attorneys defending clients facing the death penalty.

Take two cases in Massachusetts. Ashcroft has approved the decision of US Attorney Michael Sullivan to pursue the death penalty against two gang members accused of killing a third from a rival gang. His office is also reportedly considering a request from Sullivan to pursue the death penalty against Charles Jaynes, convicted of second-degree murder as an accomplice and currently serving a life sentence for the 1997 murder of 10-year-old Cambridge boy Jeffrey Curley. While Curley’s mother and brothers applaud the move, Curley’s father is against the death penalty.

To his credit, Suffolk County district attorney Dan Conley has publicly denounced Ashcroft’s decision to seek the death penalty against Darryl Green and Branden Morris, alleged drug dealers who are accused of shooting Terrell Gethers. Conley has also pledged to appeal to Ashcroft’s office, which has the final say in such prosecutions, to reconsider the decision.

Such reconsideration is unlikely, however. Ashcroft is on a death-penalty spree. Compared with former attorney general Janet Reno, Ashcroft has pursued the death penalty in a "dramatically high" number of cases, says McNally. During a five-year period, for example, Reno approved the use of the death penalty in 161 cases, but she did so without a request from a US attorney just 26 times.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts, where Ashcroft seeks to apply the death penalty in unusual fashion by prosecuting someone already serving a life sentence for murder, remains fertile ground for anti-death-penalty forces. The state last imposed a sentence of death in 1947, when Phillip Bellino and Edward Gertson, both convicted of murdering Robert William, were electrocuted at Charlestown State Prison. Voters passed a ballot initiative calling for the reinstitution of the death penalty in 1982, but the Supreme Judicial Court ruled the measure unconstitutional two years later. Since then there have been several legislative attempts to pass a death-penalty law in Massachusetts, but all have failed. And jurors in the 2001 federal prosecution of Kristen Gilbert, a nurse at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Northampton convicted of killing four patients, rejected the death penalty and opted to sentence her to life in prison instead.

Will Ashcroft succeed in bringing the death penalty to Massachusetts, where others have failed to do so? It’s unlikely. But he’s been joined by Governor Mitt Romney, who made the death penalty an issue during his gubernatorial campaign. Earlier this week, Romney announced the formation of a commission to explore ways to get a bill passed by the legislature. His plan seems to involve restricting the application of the death penalty to specific instances involving terrorism or the death of a police officer. He has also charged his commission to limit the application of the death penalty to cases in which the Commonwealth is "100 percent certain" of a convict’s guilt, according to the State House News Service.

That Romney sees the need to make it a requirement of his bill that only people 100 percent guilty be put to death — frankly, that should be obvious — betrays one of the fundamental flaws in the application of the death penalty: we simply can’t be sure that the innocent will not be punished. Since 1973, 111 people have been taken off death row in 25 states after being proved innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. That’s bad enough. But we also know that the death sentence is applied unevenly. Study after study shows that defendants of color are more likely to receive the death penalty than white defendants who commit similar crimes. Indeed, 33 of the 38 cases in which Ashcroft has sought the death penalty without a request by a US attorney involve defendants of color. The victims in all 38 cases were white.

Just 12 states have stood firm against the hysterical cry for the brutalizing approach to law and order that’s swept the country over the past few decades and have refused to institute capital punishment. Ashcroft is trying to introduce the hangman’s culture to these areas of the country with his wild pursuit of the death penalty. It’s ill-advised and immoral. There’s little we can do to stop Ashcroft, however, until 2004, when we can vote President Bush out of office. In the meantime, we should make our opposition to the death penalty clear to state legislators, who will eventually vote on whatever proposal Romney’s commission comes up with.

Contact your local state representative and state senator and let them know how you feel. Visit www.state.ma.us/legis/legis.htm to find contact information.

What do you think? Send an e-mail to letters@phx.com

Issue Date: September 26 - October 2, 2003
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