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Today, a Senate panel held its first hearing in six years on the federal death penalty. The Justice Department is about to implement new guidelines that would restrict what prosecutors can reveal about their decision on whether to seek the death penalty.
NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.
ARI SHAPIRO: This is a story that Paul Charlton might not be able to tell under new Justice Department guidelines that go into effect next week. It's about a disagreement between prosecutors in Arizona and the Justice Department in Washington. Charlton was Arizona's U.S. attorney before he was dismissed with other prosecutors last year. At the time, he was handling the case of Jose Rios Rico, a meth dealer accused of killing his supplier. Charlton said there's no ballistics or DNA evidence implicating Rico. There's not even a body.
Mr. PAUL CHARLTON (Former U.S. Attorney, Phoenix): We know where the body is. In fact, for the price of between $500,000 and $1 million, we could go get the body. It's currently buried in a landfill in Mobile, Arizona.
SHAPIRO: Charlton said he requested the funds to exhume the body, but the Justice Department said no.
Mr. CHARLTON: It is inappropriate to seek the death penalty in a case where you can literally put your arms around evidence that will either support your contention that this is the appropriate death penalty case, or perhaps, and just as importantly, show evidence that is inconsistent with the government's theory of the prosecution.
SHAPIRO: Charlton and the line prosecutor on the case argued that the Justice Department should authorize them to seek a punishment just short of the death penalty. The lawyers in Washington started their review process.
Mr. CHARLTON: Now under Attorney General Ashcroft, I was notified along every step of the way - from the review committee to the deputy attorney general to the attorney general - of their decision-making process. But in this instance, I was not.
SHAPIRO: The first Charlton heard of any disagreement was a letter from the attorney general authorizing Charlton to seek the death penalty. He asked the attorney general to reconsider but Alberto Gonzales would not change his mind. And later he testified that this case was one reason he fired Charlton.
Justice Department officials say they want national uniformity in the death penalty to make sure similar crimes receive similar punishments no matter where they're committed. That's one reason the department pushed the death penalty case in Puerto Rico where the constitution explicitly outlaws capital punishment.
The island's Justice Secretary Roberto Sanchez Ramos testified at today's hearing.
Mr. ROBERTO SANCHEZ RAMOS (Secretary of Justice, Puerto Rico): The application of the federal death penalty in Puerto Rico stands against our highest social, cultural, political, moral and religious values.
SHAPIRO: In light of this criticism, Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin asked Barry Sabin of the Justice Department why did the department's new guidelines impose more secrecy on the process.
Senator RUSS FEINGOLD (Democrat, Wisconsin): Can you understand how some people might look at these new rules and think that the department must be trying to hide something by changing these protocols?
Mr. BARRY SABIN (Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Criminal Division, Department of Justice): And the department is here today to say that we are not trying to hide something either from this subcommittee or the American people. We are just trying to ensure that the debate in the department is robust and considered, and that individual opinions are not chilled as a result of congressional oversight.
SHAPIRO: Senator Feingold said he appreciates that statement, but Congress has had a lot of problems with the Justice Department saying, trust us.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
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