Reckless disregard

July 03, 2002

THE U.S. Supreme Court has said it is unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded and for judges to unilaterally impose the death penalty. Two states (including Maryland) have suspended their use of capital punishment, pending the completion of studies to determine its fairness. And a judge in New York this week said federal use of the death penalty creates "undue risk" of killing innocents and is therefore unconstitutional.

That last decision is a somewhat radical one that's likely to be reined in by higher courts. But nonetheless, these developments in totality describe something of a trend - a reflection of this nation's growing uneasiness with the seemingly random (and therefore reckless) nature of many state-sanctioned killings.

For some reason, that notion seems lost on U.S. Attorney John Ashcroft. Instead of putting the brakes on capital prosecutions to take stock of their probity, he's charging full steam ahead, with little regard for even his own prosecutors' apprehensions.

Talk about being out of step.

Mr. Ashcroft has sought death in nearly half the eligible cases, far more frequently than previous attorneys general embraced it. In 12 cases, he has overruled U.S. attorneys who had either recommended against the death penalty or reached plea agreements for lesser sentences.

Predictably, the attorney general's aggressive policies have accentuated well-known problems with death penalty prosecutions at the state level. His cases, for example, have been three times as likely to ask for the death penalty when the defendant was black and the victim white than in cases where the victim was not white. Sound familiar? It should; killers with white victims face the death penalty more often than killers with black victims in nearly every state that permits capital punishment. The disparity tends to be worst in states that use the death penalty the most.

And how could more aggressive capital prosecution make sense in light of the growing innocence problem on death rows around the country? Arizona recently released the 100th U.S. death row inmate found after conviction to be innocent. In Maryland, one inmate has been exonerated by DNA evidence and the sentence of another was commuted because Gov. Parris N. Glendening could not reach a reasonable level of certainty about his guilt.

If anything, Mr. Ashcroft's attorneys, like state prosecutors, need to check their zeal to seek death, in order to ensure they are pursuing only the worst of the worst, convicted by the strongest of evidence, as the Supreme Court has insisted. Where life and death are concerned, caution - not ardor - must guide decision-making.

Mr. Ashcroft is a brash conservative who has enthusiastically supported the death penalty throughout his public career. As a citizen, that is his right. But as the nation's chief law enforcer, he has a broader obligation to respect not only the law as it exists, but also as it evolves.

He is not doing that with regard to the death penalty. And by ignoring changes in attitudes toward capital punishment, Mr. Ashcroft shows disrespect toward the Americans he swore to serve.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.