- The Washington Times - Monday, February 12, 2007

The U.S. Justice Department is defending the practice of seeking the death penalty in jurisdictions such as the District where local law bars capital punishment, including in the ongoing trial of a D.C. man accused of being an enforcer for a violent drug gang.

“The Department of Justice has a protocol that ensures that the federal death penalty is applied uniformly throughout the country, regardless of the local laws,” acting Assistant Attorney General Richard A. Hertling wrote in a letter to Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting member of Congress.

Mrs. Norton, a Democrat, wrote a letter last month to the office of U.S. Attorney Jeffrey A. Taylor criticizing its pursuit of the death penalty in the trial of Larry Gooch.

Mr. Gooch is on trial in federal court in the District on murder, racketeering and drug trafficking charges. He is accused of killing four persons, assisting in another slaying and shooting at a police officer while acting as enforcer for the M Street Crew, a PCP ring in Northeast.

D.C. law bars capital punishment, but prosecutors can seek the death penalty in federal cases.

“Repeatedly seeking the death penalty in the face of jury and court verdicts to the contrary risks the appearance of an office seeking to show it can get death penalty convictions even in the District of Columbia,” Mrs. Norton wrote in her letter to Mr. Taylor.

She expressed concern about “the apparent emergence of a new and troubling pattern” of death penalty cases in the District, “despite consistent failure with juries and the federal courts.”

Mr. Hertling said federal prosecutors in the District have not increased their pursuit of the death penalty under the Bush administration.

As attorney general in the Clinton administration, Janet Reno authorized the death penalty in four cases, including those of so-called Murder Inc. drug kingpins Kevin Gray and Rodney Moore, convicted of 19 and 10 murders, respectively.

The Justice Department authorized the death penalty in three D.C. cases during the Bush administration, Mr. Hertling said.

In two of the cases, federal court rulings on various legal points ultimately prevented authorities from seeking capital punishment. The other case involves Gooch, whose trial is expected to last several months.

The D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center records 47 federal death-row prisoners in the United States, including four from Virginia and two from Maryland.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the center, said the federal government has been seeking the death penalty even in jurisdictions where local laws prohibit capital punishment.

In 2000, he said, federal death row held no inmates convicted of crimes in states that outlaw the death penalty. Today, the number is six. Mr. Dieter said that does not include a recent case in New York, where a state court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional but capital punishment remains on the books.

“There are some signals of a more aggressive use of the federal death penalty,” he said. “I don’t think anybody would deny that when you seek it in Massachusetts or North Dakota or Puerto Rico or any of these places, then you’re going to have a broader use of the death penalty than you would have had if you mostly restricted it to places where voters have agreed to support the death penalty.”

Mr. Gooch’s federal racketeering case makes him eligible for the death penalty.

Prosecutors were prohibited from seeking the death penalty against Antwuan Ball and David Wilson, accused of running another drug gang known as Congress Park Crew, because of a missed filing deadline.

Mr. Hertling told Mrs. Norton in his letter that the filing delay was caused by “the intensive and meticulous deliberations of the U.S. Attorney’s Office … and the Department of Justice’s capital case review committee.”

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