MIAMI — Like her boss, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, federal prosecutor Karen E. Rochlin is opposed to capital punishment. She believes it is morally wrong to take another person's life.
But, because she has sworn to enforce the law, she left her own beliefs outside court when she asked a jury to hand down death sentences for three young gangbangers who had terrorized a Miami neighborhood and left two people dead.
"They should pay. They should be miserable," she said, recalling her turmoil over the case, which ended with terms of life in prison for the three. "And I still don't think they should have died."
This is an age when the public overwhelmingly supports capital punishment--some polls show its approval as high as 70%--and when California, Florida, Texas and many other states are filling their death rows to capacity.
Yet the federal government struggles with capital punishment, and the vast majority of those charged in capital cases are escaping the ultimate punishment.
Despite her personal aversion to the death penalty, Reno has talked tough. But the bulk of capital cases brought by her department results in plea bargains, acquittals or decisions by federal attorneys against filing capital charges.
In a little more than five years in Washington, she has authorized seeking execution in 88 of 293 requests made by U.S. attorneys around the country.
Of those 88, 35 have gone to trial; federal prosecutors have won death penalty convictions in only 11 of the cases. Most of the other cases have resulted in other sentences or are pending.
Even in high-publicity cases, the capital conviction rate record has been mixed. Although Timothy J. McVeigh was sentenced to die for bombing the Oklahoma City federal building, his co-defendant, Terry L. Nichols, received a life sentence. In the Unabomber case, federal prosecutors agreed to a plea arrangement with Theodore J. Kaczynski. He too was given a life sentence.
Although most local jurisdictions, including Los Angeles, have comparable success ratios in securing death sentences, some have found ways to win even more such cases.
In Houston, Harris County prosecutor Johnny Holmes has perhaps the country's highest record on the death penalty: a 75% success rate at trial over the last 20 years. He criticizes other prosecutors--Rochlin and Reno included--who personally oppose the death penalty and yet maintain they can vigorously prosecute a capital case.
"If you're the president of the United States, you shouldn't put anybody in the position of having to enforce the death penalty who doesn't believe in it," Holmes said.
In Washington, Reno encourages debate among her staff before a death sentence is sought. Federal prosecutors make recommendations to her office. Special committees invite defense lawyers to Washington to argue against a capital charge. The committees then make recommendations to Reno, who decides whether death will be sought.
At her Senate confirmation hearings, Reno admitted to her personal dislike of the death penalty. But she just as quickly promised to uphold the law and to seek capital punishment when she believed it appropriate.
But one of her major qualms about seeking the death penalty is her fear of an innocent man being executed. "It frightens me," she said in 1996. "We have got to do everything we can to prevent it from happening."
Defense lawyers who have argued successfully in front of the panels said they were impressed by the internal checks and balances.
William D. Matthewman, a Miami lawyer who defended one of the suspects tried by Rochlin, said he has participated in half a dozen committee sessions and, except for once, always managed to persuade prosecutors not to seek death.
In Rochlin's 1996 Miami case involving a gang called the Boulder Boys, jurors cited what they called a "sheer lack of evidence" for murder charges and spared the defendants from execution. But the three, accused of carrying on an illegal drug operation and being involved in a series of shootings that left two people dead and a third wounded, were convicted on other drug and gang-related charges. The judge sentenced them to life.
Reno has not authorized any other death penalty cases in Florida, and Rochlin still wrestles with her conscience.
"Death is a very serious thing," Rochlin said. "It may be appropriate. It may be the law. It may be justice. But I personally don't think the state should, or needs to, sink to that level."