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Attorney general demands increased death sentences
John Ashcroft's race to execute

By Elizabeth Schulte | February 14, 2003 | Page 2

JOHN ASHCROFT is laying down the law: Execute, execute, execute. In less than two years, Bush's attorney general has forced federal prosecutors to seek it the death penalty in at least 28 cases where they hadn't requested it, according to the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project, a national network of defense lawyers.

Ashcroft gave himself new power over life and death in June 2001, when he announced that federal prosecutors would have to get his permission before entering into any plea bargains that would take a death sentence off the table. Ashcroft's office claims that it was intervening to eliminate disparities from state to state in how the federal death penalty is applied.

In other words, more executions all around. "They want to set a consistent national standard for these cases," said David Ruhnke, who represents a defendant in a new Manhattan death penalty case, "but the standards that they're using are the standards used by Texas district attorneys running for re-election."

Almost half of the cases that Ashcroft intervened in were in New York and Connecticut. "They're attempting to bring the federal death penalty to areas of the country like the Northeast that are less hospitable to the death penalty than the traditional death penalty states," said Kevin McNally, a Kentucky lawyer from the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project.

The group also found that race played an overwhelming role in the cases where Ashcroft intervened. "In the cases he is seeking the death penalty, overriding the prosecutors, 95 percent are cases involving people of color," said Texas defense lawyer Dick Burr.

Who is Ashcroft going after? In one New York case, three men are accused of being cocaine dealers who killed a marijuana dealer. Defense lawyers say one of the defendants is mentally retarded.

Also on the list is the New York case of Diego Rodriguez and Alan Quinones, who are accused of killing a government informant. Last year, they received publicity after a federal judge ruled in their case that the current federal death penalty law was unconstitutional, citing the growing number of exonerations of death row inmates through DNA and other evidence.

Ashcroft was also responsible for getting the prosecutions of the Washington, D.C., sniper suspects moved to Virginia--a state with a high rate of executions.

A mountain of doubts--and opposition--about the death penalty system is piling up across the country. High-profile cases of innocent people on death row, proof of the systematic racism in the system and activism around the issue led former Illinois Gov. George Ryan to empty death row by commuting the sentences of every prisoner facing execution.

Ashcroft is afraid that this sentiment will spread. So he's doing everything he can to speed up the machinery of death. We have to speak out against him.

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