L.A. Times: U.S. Attorney Opposition to Death Penalty a Possible Reason for Firings

In much of the mainstream media reporting on the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, the focus has been on stoking a political controversy from the story, ruminating on Alberto Gonzales's shelf life as attorney general, etc.

Largely left by the wayside in mainstream media reporting have been legitimate deviations the fired attorneys exhibited from Bush Justice Department priorities, such as immigration enforcement -- for instance, San Diego-based attorney Carol Lam's prosecution of immigration cases reportedly bothered the decidedly unconservative Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) -- and pushing for the death penalty in capital cases.

It took a while but at least one major media outlet is reporting that a reluctance to pursue the death penalty might have been a factor in at least three of the firings. [continued...]

Today the Los Angeles Times reported that 3 out of 8 fired U.S. attorneys were reluctant to push for the death penalty in capital cases.

The three prosecutors are among eight U.S. attorneys terminated last year in a housecleaning by the Justice Department. Their hesitation over the death penalty was not cited as a reason for their dismissals, but Washington officials have made it clear they have little patience for prosecutors who are not with the program.

Data from the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, which opposes capital punishment, show that there have been 95 federal death penalty trials in the last six years under Ashcroft and Gonzales, compared with 55 during the eight years under the Clinton administration's Atty. Gen. Janet Reno.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the center, said that when Bush came to Washington in 2001, his administration seemed determined not only to toughen the federal death penalty statute but to seek it across the nation — including in places where state laws forbid it, such as Michigan.

As a result, he said, "you see a lot more [capital] cases going to trial, unlike what was happening before, where U.S. attorneys were given some leeway to settle cases or take plea bargains."

Dieter said: "Bush certainly believes in the death penalty, Ashcroft was a fervent believer, and Gonzales was Bush's advisor in Texas, denying all those clemency requests."

Granted, the Times reporters crafted their story with heavy emphasis on liberal death penalty opponents like Dieter who object to the Bush Justice Department's focus on capital punishment. That doesn't take away from the fact that there is evidence that at least some of the fired U.S. attorneys substantially disappointed the White House on a policy priority.

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is the Managing Editor for NewsBusters