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At Justice, life-and-death frictions

Fired U.S. attorneys in California, Michigan and Arizona shared a reluctance to pursue capital punishment.

March 26, 2007|Richard A. Serrano, Tom Hamburger and Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — As a U.S. attorney in Grand Rapids, Mich., Margaret Chiara, who once studied to become a nun, appealed several times to the Justice Department against having to seek the death penalty. In hindsight, for her it was a risky business.

No prisoner has been executed in a Michigan case since 1938, but the Bush administration seemed determined to change that. Under Attys. Gen. John Ashcroft and Alberto R. Gonzales, far more federal defendants have been dispatched to death row than under the Clinton administration. And any prosecutors wishing to seek other punishment often find themselves overruled.

Chiara was not the only one to run afoul of the administration's death penalty stance.

In San Francisco, U.S. Atty. Kevin Ryan was ordered by Ashcroft to conduct a capital trial for a Californian charged with killing a man with a booby-trapped mail bomb. Ryan persuaded Ashcroft's successor, Gonzales, to drop the death charge; last month the defendant, David Lin, was acquitted in San Jose.

In Phoenix, prosecutor Paul Charlton was told repeatedly, despite his resistance, to file capital murder charges in a case where the victim's body has not been recovered. The woman's remains are believed buried deep in an Arizona landfill, but the Justice Department refused Charlton's request to shoulder the cost -- up to $1 million -- to retrieve the corpse.

Little patience

The three prosecutors are among eight U.S. attorneys terminated last year in a housecleaning by the Justice Department. Their hesitation over the death penalty was not cited as a reason for their dismissals, but Washington officials have made it clear they have little patience for prosecutors who are not with the program.

Data from the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, which opposes capital punishment, show that there have been 95 federal death penalty trials in the last six years under Ashcroft and Gonzales, compared with 55 during the eight years under the Clinton administration's Atty. Gen. Janet Reno.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the center, said that when Bush came to Washington in 2001, his administration seemed determined not only to toughen the federal death penalty statute but to seek it across the nation -- including in places where state laws forbid it, such as Michigan.

As a result, he said, "you see a lot more [capital] cases going to trial, unlike what was happening before, where U.S. attorneys were given some leeway to settle cases or take plea bargains."

Dieter said: "Bush certainly believes in the death penalty, Ashcroft was a fervent believer, and Gonzales was Bush's advisor in Texas, denying all those clemency requests."

'She caught a lot of flak'

When Chiara was appointed to be the top prosecutor in Grand Rapids in November 2001, she told reporters she was opposed to the death penalty. But, she added, her personal views would not affect her performance.

Nevertheless, said her predecessor, Mike Dettmer: "She did not pass the Bush loyalty test on her concerns over the death penalty" and "she caught a lot of flak for it."

Two years into her term, she filed capital charges against Michael and Robert Ostrander -- brothers from Cadillac, Mich. -- in the slaying and robbery of an alleged fellow drug dealer. The decision to pursue the death penalty was made by Ashcroft after Chiara and a deputy, Phil Green, flew to Washington and tried to persuade him otherwise, Dettmer said.

Paul Mitchell, who represented one brother, said the state law against execution in Michigan was bypassed when Washington made it a federal case based on the fact that a firearm was used in a drug-related offense.

Police said the brothers met another alleged drug dealer, Hansle Andrews, and invited him to go with them to purchase drugs in Grand Rapids. Instead they drove to a remote area outside Cadillac, shot Andrews, robbed him and buried the body in a pre-dug grave.

They were convicted of murder but were spared death, receiving life sentences instead.

Chiara also faced the death penalty issue shortly after she took office. The case involved evidence that Marvin Gabrion had drowned a young woman, Rachel Timmerman, in a lake in Michigan's Manistee National Forest. Timmerman's body, chained to cement blocks, was found in 1997; because the crime occurred on federal property, the U.S. attorney's office took it on.

Ashcroft, taking over as attorney general in 2001, overruled a Clinton administration decision not to seek the death penalty, and the case was tried by attorneys from Chiara's office in 2002. Though she had not personally sought capital punishment, she went along with Ashcroft's decision. Gabrion was convicted and sentenced to death.

In firing Chiara, the Justice Department did not mention the death penalty but did say officials felt they had "no assurance that DOJ priorities/policies [were] being carried out" in Grand Rapids.

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