STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.
ARI SHAPIRO: Attorney General Holder has said he is not a proponent of the death penalty, but early on he proved he is not afraid to instruct prosecutors to seek it. He spoke to reporters back in March.
ERIC HOLDER: I think that's probably the toughest decision that an attorney general has to make, when do you authorize the seeking of the death penalty. I've had to sign a few of those already, during the course of these six weeks.
SHAPIRO: Then came Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who approved death penalty prosecutions 13 percent of the time. And that 13 percent figure is roughly the same as Attorney General Holder's rate. The Justice Department said it could not confirm these numbers.
RICHARD DIETER: The federal death penalty is not on hold in the sense of prosecutions.
SHAPIRO: Richard Dieter runs the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonpartisan group that tracks death penalty enforcement.
DIETER: Eric Holder's stamp of approval and signature is now on a number of federal prosecutions that are being carried on, and yet we don't know if there's going to be a change in policy.
SHAPIRO: But this debate is about more than the number of prosecutions. It's also about how and where the decision to seek the death penalty is made. Paul Charlton was President Bush's U.S. attorney in Arizona. He advised against seeking the death penalty for a drug dealer accused of killing his supplier, and Attorney General Gonzales overruled Charlton's recommendation.
PAUL CHARLTON: Of great disappointment to me, in that instance, was that the attorney general refused to hear from me personally.
SHAPIRO: Speaking to reporters last month, the new attorney general said he won't make that mistake.
HOLDER: Based on my experience having been a United States attorney, and given the respect that I have for the career people who handle these kinds of matters, the recommendation that I get from the field carries a great deal of weight with me.
SHAPIRO: As Richard Dieter explains, the Clinton administration deferred to local norms.
DIETER: That is to say, you don't ordinarily seek the death penalty where the voters have rejected it. President Bush and John Ashcroft were upfront. They said, we're changing the policy.
SHAPIRO: They brought federal death penalty cases in states that have outlawed capital punishment. Sometimes that led to street protests.
INSKEEP: what are you thoughts on when asked the Justice Department will seek the federal death penalty in states that don't have the death penalty?
HOLDER: I wouldn't say that there is a policy where we're doing it on a state-by-state basis. It really is a case-by-case basis.
SHAPIRO: Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
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