When he became Attorney General, John Ashcroft was faced with an internal study that raised serious questions about the federal death penalty. A small number of places, including pockets of Texas and Virginia, were accounting for the bulk of death cases. Experts decried the geographical disparities. Ashcroft’s solution, says the Los Angeles Times, was to seek the death penalty more often and more widely. His campaign has made few inroads. With public support for the death penalty in decline, jurors have rejected calls for the death penalty in 23 of the 34 federal capital cases tried since 2001, according to the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project, a court-funded group that assists defense lawyers in capital cases.
Ashcroft keeps trying. This month, federal prosecutors began a capital murder trial in Iowa, where no one has been executed since the state abolished the death penalty in 1965. Vermont, another state that long ago abolished the death penalty, is gearing up for its own federal capital trial next year. In New York – which hasn’t executed a federal prisoner since the Rosenberg spy case in 1953, and where jurors have already rejected two Ashcroft capital cases – a federal court on Long Island is expected to take up another death case next year. The Ashcroft Justice Department has won at least three death penalties in anti-death jurisdictions. They include Massachusetts, whose high court found the state death penalty unconstitutional in 1984, and the Navajo Indian Reservation, which has opposed capital punishment for cultural reasons.