Ashcroft's Faith in Death

By Richard Cohen 
Tuesday, April 23, 2002

   Ray Krone owes his freedom to the simple fact that whoever killed Kim Ancona drooled on her. The killer also sexually assaulted her, but no semen was ever recovered, and he also bit her, leaving tooth marks that one expert in such matters said matched Krone's. As sometimes happens, another expert held another view -- but the jury was never told this. Krone was sentenced to die.

   Earlier this month, he became the 100th person freed from prison after having been on death row. He had already served 10 years before a DNA test proved that the saliva found on Ancona could not have been Krone's. He was free to go on his merry way -- and sorry about those 10 years, Ray.

   What would have happened, you might wonder, had the actual killer just kept his mouth shut? In that case, you would have had your run-of-the-mill murder, a stabbing in which DNA played no role whatever -- nothing to prove, nothing to disprove. This is usually the case with murder. Shoot someone from the customary 10 paces, and you get no exchange of bodily fluids. If the wrong man is convicted, tough. The wrong man is executed.

   This reality is totally lost on John Ashcroft. Although ostensibly a conservative, and therefore determined to limit Washington's reach, Ashcroft has slowly been nationalizing the death penalty. Time magazine tells us that 12 times since assuming office, Ashcroft has overruled local U.S. attorneys and demanded they ask for capital punishment. Sometimes, it seems, Washington does know best.

   Since Ashcroft supposedly does not read newspapers, I can say what I want about him without hurting his feelings. He's thick. What do I mean by that? I mean he's uneducable. I mean he knows of all the studies done about capital punishment, including the one recently issued in Illinois, yet his confidence in capital punishment remains unshaken. The Illinois study concluded, if I may paraphrase, that the only way to ensure that no innocent person is ever executed is either to be God or do away with capital punishment. Only one is an option.

   Ashcroft is hearing none of this. He has, literally, a religious faith in capital punishment. When he was in the Senate, he blocked a judgeship because the nominee was sometimes soft on death. It wasn't that the nominee was a foe of capital punishment, it was just that he did not take every opportunity to uphold a death sentence. People like that cannot be trusted.  Recently, Ashcroft announced the indictment of Darrell David Rice on four counts of murder, two for each of his alleged victims. Julianne Williams and Laura S. Winans were killed while camping in the Shenandoah National Park in 1996. Rice is currently in jail for another crime.

   It is the government's intention to prove that the crime for which Rice has been convicted -- attempted abduction of a woman -- and the one for which he has been charged are linked by motive: He hates women and homosexuals. Maybe
   that's the case, and maybe Rice's alleged biases were a motive for the crime. But upon that "maybe" the government has constructed a capital case. After all, if it had hard evidence -- DNA, etc. -- it would not have waited until now to seek an indictment. Rice has been in jail since 1998. It seems instead that what the government lacks in evidence it will make up in motive. Rice is a hater. That's why he's a killer, too.

   Possibly. But this use of a hate-crime provision to compensate for the lack of hard evidence is troubling. If, as it seems, the government is going to buttress its case by showing Rice hated women and homosexuals, it's going to have to resort to what witnesses say he said or -- maybe -- to the testimony of a jailhouse snitch. This is precisely the sort of evidence that eventually figures in the release of innocent people from death row. With Rice, though, DNA can never free him, because there is no DNA to begin with. Maybe he's guilty. But with the death penalty, why take the chance?

   One hundred men, once on death row and now free, can testify to the fact that the system is far from perfect. Another attorney general might pause and wonder about what this all means. Ashcroft does not pause at all. He thinks he is doing God's perfect work, but he is doing it, as we all must, as an imperfect man. He can be forgiven his mistakes. He cannot be forgiven his arrogance.

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