There were parts of the President’s State of the Union address that impressed me — and parts that I thought were duplicitous. One of the new initiatives he mentioned has received little attention in the press — and that is more investment in DNA evidence processing in capital punishment cases.
I support this initiative by Bush because I think it is clear that America in the past has executed prisoners innocent of their crimes and has not done enough to assure that such tragic mistakes are not a regular feature of our justice system.
President Bush stated:
Because one of the main sources of our national unity is our belief in equal justice, we need to make sure Americans of all races and backgrounds have confidence in the system that provides justice. In America we must make doubly sure no person is held to account for a crime he or she did not commit — so we are dramatically expanding the use of DNA evidence to prevent wrongful conviction. (Applause.)
Soon I will send to Congress a proposal to fund special training for defense counsel in capital cases, because people on trial for their lives must have competent lawyers by their side. (Applause.)
But then I got thinking about these new round of cabinent confirmations, particularly Al Gonzales as Attorney General.
Could Bush’s new found interest in death row justice be camouflage for the clear deficits in due process managed by his closest legal advisor in Texas and the Oval Office?
According to one report:
On execution day in Texas, it was the job of Gonzales to give Bush a summary of the case. The summary was the last information standing between an inmate and lethal injection. Gonzales provided 57 summaries to Bush. Gonzales intended for the memos to be confidential, but author Alan Berlow obtained them under Texas public information law.
Berlow found that Gonzales routinely provided scant summaries to Bush. The summaries, according to Berlow, “repeatedly failed to apprise the governor of crucial issues in the cases at hand: ineffective counsel, conflict of interest, mitigating evidence, even actual evidence of innocence.”
Berlow cited the 1997 case of Terry Washington, a mentally retarded man who was executed for the murder of a 29-year-old restaurant manager. Washington was executed even though his journey through the justice system was riddled with omissions and incompetence. The jury was never told of the level of his retardation or of the vicious abuse he received as a child. Washington’s lawyers failed to find mental health experts for Washington’s defense.
In his summary to Bush about Washington, Gonzales played up the murder and almost entirely omitted the evidence that cried out of a miscarriage of justice. Washington’s final 30-page petition for clemency was centered on the issues of ineffective counsel and retardation. On execution day, all that Gonzales presented Bush was a three-page memo in which the only mention of the petition was that it had been rejected by the state Board of Pardons and Paroles.
About Attorney General Gonzales, the New York Times reminds us:
Mr. Gonzales testified that he agreed with the substance of the original torture memo, and he still takes the view that the president can declare himself to be above the law. In written responses to senators’ questions, Mr. Gonzales argued that intelligence agents could “abuse” prisoners as long as they did it to foreigners outside the United States.
Bush’s DNA and legal initiative for those facing execution in this country is a good first step. Getting out of the torture business is also a good thing for the President to suggest to his people.
But Al Gonzales’s views on America’s chief citizen being above the law, or federal treaties not applying to the Republic of Texas (as he once wrote), or torture by agents of the U.S. being acceptable beyond our geographic borders, makes Gonzales a very ominous presence in Bush’s new cabinet.
I’m sorry to see that so many moderate Republicans didn’t step forward to block someone whose legal interpretations and prescriptions they detest. To them, Gonzales represents all of the dangers of corrupt, unrestrained, powerful government that meddles in the lives of its citizens.
— Steve Clemons