October 17, 2004 Sunday AG death-penalty push add$ up to trouble By J.M. Lawrence Attorney General John Ashcroft's four-year push for more federal executions is costing taxpayers record amounts while two out of three federal juries have refused to give killers the needle. ``It's hugely expensive and he's not getting much bang for his buck,'' said attorney Kevin McNally of the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel. A record 65 federal defendants are now awaiting death-penalty trials, including two gang members in Massachusetts accused of killing rival gangsters. A federal capital trial costs taxpayers about $1 million per case in defense expenses and $1.5 million per case in prosecution costs, according to experts. Ashcroft's predecessor Janet Reno's all-time high was 39 alleged killers facing federal death trials. Reno also accepted far more guilty pleas resulting in life sentences - and less costly cases - than Ashcroft, records show. A Justice Department spokesman said the AG's push for capital cases stems from a commitment to enforce federal law in all states, including 12 without the death penalty. Studies show the federal death penalty - which was enacted in 1988 and expanded in 1994 to include murder during carjackings and murder for hire - previously was used mostly in Texas, Virginia, Missouri and Georgia. Of 32 inmates on federal death row, 19 were sentenced to death in those states. ``Federal law is federal law. It ought to be applied uniformly across the country. We should not have differing standards in one part of the country versus another,'' said DOJ spokesman Mark Corallo. Yet the AG's campaign for more death cases nationwide comes as public support for executions is waning amid revelations of innocent and wrongly convicted people. A majority of Americans still backs execution, but the percentage has fallen from 80 percent in the 1960s to 64 percent now. Of the last 34 federal death cases tried, only 11 resulted in verdicts for execution. In Virginia, for example, the Justice Department is 0-6 in its effort to win death verdicts. Upon taking office, the AG rejected DOJ policy that had given greater deference to local prosecutors' views on which defendants should face a death trial. Ashcroft so far has required death trials for 41 defendants in cases where federal prosecutors did not seek death, according to McNally. Corallo said the Justice Department's poor record in winning executions, however, doesn't matter when the ultimate goal is fair law enforcement. ``At the end of the day, it's up to the juries,'' Corallo said. The added death trials, however, are wreaking havoc with the judiciary's budget for paying court-appointed defense teams. ``It's just killing us,'' said one administrator. The U.S. Judicial Conference was unable last week to compile exact figures for spending on defense attorneys in capital cases. The costs for experts alone in death-penalty cases can be staggering. In Boston, the government spent $111,997.18 last year for a psychologist who examined triple killer Gary Lee Sampson and testified he is not mentally ill. Jurors delivered a verdict for the execution of Sampson. The government rejected his offer to plead guilty in return for a life sentence.