Attorney General John Ashcroft has directed federal prosecutors in New York and Connecticut to seek the death penalty in a dozen cases in which they had recommended lesser sentences. Mr. Ashcroft's orders are a triumph of ideology over good prosecutorial practice. The Bush administration should reconsider them.
In 10 current cases in New York and 2 in Connecticut, United States attorneys decided not to seek the death penalty. One involved a defendant who pleaded guilty in exchange for testifying against other members of a drug ring. Another involved a defendant who according to his lawyers is mentally retarded and thus ineligible for the death penalty.
Mr. Ashcroft's decisions appear to be driven by a desire to see the death penalty used more. His aggressive promotion of capital punishment is not only wrong, it is badly timed. Popular support for the death penalty is declining, due in large part to the growing number of cases in which DNA evidence is exonerating death row inmates.
Mr. Ashcroft also seems to have a regional agenda. The reversals in New York and Connecticut are nearly half of all cases nationwide in which he has overruled decisions not to seek the death penalty. Mr. Ashcroft's drive to increase the use of capital punishment here flies in the face of the administration's oft-repeated commitment to allowing states and localities more control over policy issues.
United States attorneys' offices are among the most respected institutions in law enforcement. The Justice Department should let these professional prosecutors make decisions about sentencing, not impose a political agenda on them.