Two years ago, as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales faced confirmation hearings, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty stressed that the nation’s chief law enforcement officer “must demonstrate the highest commitment to fairness, due process and equal protection under the law.”
We based our opposition to Gonzales’ confirmation on our belief that his track record on death penalty cases in Texas failed to meet this challenge. Time and again the legal analysis he provided to then-Gov. George W. Bush on the eve of executions failed to include any discussion of the most salient issues, including severe mental retardation and mental illness, abysmally poor legal representation and, in more than a handful of cases, even credible claims of innocence.
With the recent revelations that differences regarding the death penalty played a role in the dismissal of at least three U.S. attorneys, our fears, sadly, have been justified.
Then, as now, Mr. Gonzales placed Bush’s political agenda above honesty, integrity , and commitment to fairness. In Texas this took the form of cursory review – and then denial in every single case but one – of clemency applications as President Bush parlayed his “tough-on-crime” persona into a successful run for the Republican presidential nomination.
Today, Mr. Gonzales’ failed priorities have contributed to a politicized federal death penalty system instead of one based on fairness and integrity. Consider:
- At least three U.S. attorneys – Paul Charlton of Arizona, Margaret Chiara of Michigan, and Kevin Ryan of California – were dismissed after clashing with the Justice Department over death penalty policy. Although the final decision has always rested with the U.S. Attorney General, a U.S. attorney’s recommendation that death should not be sought has traditionally been given great deference – until recently.
- During the six years that President Bush has been in office (a span of time marked by Mr. Gonzales and his predecessor, former Attorney General John Ashcroft) the federal death penalty was sought 95 times, or about 16 times a year. That’s twice as often as the 55 times it was sought during the eight years of the Clinton Administration, roughly seven times a year.
- Ominously, the Bush Department of Justice has sought the federal death penalty in states where voters, through their elected representatives, have rejected capital punishment. These jurisdictions include Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Dakota, and Vermont, as well as Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. (New York, a state without a functioning state death penalty, has a stunning 51 potential federal death penalty cases in the works.)
Perhaps the most telling statistic: The size of federal death row has tripled since Bush took office, while state death sentences and executions are down sharply from their historic highs in the late 1990s. Three federal death row inmates already have been executed under the Bush administration; another four federal death row inmates are nearing the end of their appeals.
What does it say that the federal death penalty under Gonzales is inconsistent with state trends, which show capital punishment is on the wane? It says, simply, that the Bush Administration has chosen to politicize the death penalty. That is wrong.
Both death penalty proponents and opponents agree on this: Fairness and integrity must be present at the highest levels of our criminal justice system, especially when a person’s life is in the balance. That is why, increasingly, groups such as murder victims’ family members, religious groups, and leaders in the law enforcement community are calling for fairness.Rust-Tierney is executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty