Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Heckuva job, Alberto!

Posted by metaphorical on 21 April 2007

“Your characterization of your participation is significantly, if not totally, at variance with the facts.”
— Senator Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), ranking minority member, Senate Judiciary Committee

“It’s clear to me that some of these people just had personality conflicts with people in your office or at the White House and, you know, we made up reasons to fire them.”
— Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina


The thing about Gonzales is, this has all happened before. The cursory memos, the dissembling, the false justifications provided for doing what he, or his boss, wanted to do in the first place, independent of facts, rationality, or any vestige of a faculty that might be called conscience.

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s slipshod handling of the U.S. Attorney firings is disturbingly reminiscent of Texas Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s slipshod handling of dealth penalty clemency decisions a decade ago.

A close examination of the Gonzales memoranda suggests that Governor Bush frequently approved executions based on only the most cursory briefings on the issues in dispute. In fact, in these documents Gonzales repeatedly failed to apprise the governor of crucial issues in the cases at hand: ineffective counsel, conflict of interest, mitigating evidence, even actual evidence of innocence.

Back in July 2003, Alan Berlow wrote an article in The Atlantic Monthly, “The Texas Clemency Memos,” that was based on memorandums Gonzales wrote for George W. Bush, then Governor of Texas. The documents were obtained under a Texas state version of the freedom of information act. It’s one of the finest pieces of investigative journalism in recent memory.

Between 1995 and 1997, Gonzales “prepared fifty-seven confidential death-penalty memoranda for Bush’s review. Never before discussed publicly, the memoranda suggest that Gonzales repeatedly failed to apprise Bush of some of the most salient issues in the cases at hand.”

Each is only three to seven pages long and generally consists of little more than a brief description of the crime, a paragraph or two on the defendant’s personal background, and a condensed legal history. Although the summaries rarely make a recommendation for or against execution, many have a clear prosecutorial bias, and all seem to assume that if an appeals court rejected one or another of a defendant’s claims, there is no conceivable rationale for the governor to revisit that claim. This assumption ignores one of the most basic reasons for clemency: the fact that the justice system makes mistakes.

Here’s Gonzales at his slipshod worst:

The Gonzales memoranda suggest that Gonzales was rarely, if ever, prompted to delve deeply into the cases he was reviewing for Bush. In his summary of the case of Carl Johnson, for example, dated September 18, 1995, the day before Johnson’s execution, Gonzales failed to mention that Johnson’s trial lawyer had literally slept through major portions of the jury selection. His memo on Irineo Tristan Montoya, dated June 18, 1997, the day of Montoya’s execution, omits the single most important issue in the case: an alleged violation of international law, which had been brought to Bush’s attention by, among others, the U.S. Department of State. His memo on Bruce Edwin Callins, dated May 21, 1997, the day of Callins’s execution, fails to note that Callins’s appeal to the Supreme Court generated the most famous death-penalty dissent in the past quarter century, written by Justice Harry Blackmun, a longtime death-penalty supporter.

If Gonzales’s memos were paeans to simplicity—little more than summaries of the prosecution’s argument—then so too were the memos prepared by his chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, about the U.S. Attorneys. Here’s a CNN report from March describing them.

WASHINGTON (CNN) — An e-mail from the Justice Department’s Kyle Sampson in March 2005 laid out a simple formula for evaluating whether the 93 U.S. attorneys should stay or go.

On a chart given to then-White House Counsel Harriet Miers, Sampson — chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales — listed attorneys in three categories:

“Bold = Recommend retaining; strong U.S. attorneys who have managed well, and exhibited loyalty to the president and attorney general.

“Strikeout = Recommend removing; weak U.S. attorneys who have been ineffectual managers and prosecutors, chafed against administration initiatives, etc.

“Nothing = No recommendation; have not distinguished themselves either positively or negatively.”

In other words, Governor Bush wanted simplicity in his clemency reviews and Texas Attorney General Gonzales gave it to him. And as U.S. Attorney General, Gonzales wanted the same simplicity when he was the boss.

Gonzales knew his boss wouldn’t look any deeper:

Alberto Gonzales told me in 2000 that in his execution briefings he always presented Governor Bush with a “detailed factual background of what happened,” along with “other outstanding facts or unusual issues.” Yet a close examination of the written execution summaries he prepared for Bush certainly raises questions about the thoroughness of Gonzales’s approach—and, ultimately, given the brevity of the summaries and the timing of their arrival at the governor’s office, about the level of attention Bush could possibly have devoted to the clemency process. In his summaries of the cases of Terry Washington, David Stoker, and Billy Gardner, Gonzales did not make Governor Bush aware of concerns about ineffective counsel, essential mitigating evidence, and even compelling claims of innocence. These were all matters of life or death, requiring in-depth explanation and discussion, that no attorney in Gonzales’s position should leave out of a written case summary or save for a thirty-minute oral briefing—especially if both are to be delivered on the very day of a scheduled execution.

And when he was the boss, Gonzales was similarly uncurious and uninformed. Here’s CBS News’s description of him in Thursday’s hearing.

As the day dragged on, it became clear – painfully clear to anyone who supports Gonzales – that the attorney general didn’t know the answers. Much of the time, he explained, he didn’t really know much at all – he was just doing what his senior staff recommended he do.

Under examination from Republican Sens. Sam Brownback, Lindsey Graham, Jeff Sessions, Tom Coburn and others, Gonzales maintained, in essence, that he did not know why he fired at least some of the eight dismissed U.S. Attorneys. While Gonzales was able to give a reason for each firing, it appeared that in a number of cases, he had reconstructed the reason after the fact; he didn’t know why he fired the U.S. Attorneys at the time, other than the dismissals were recommended by senior Justice Department staff.

The Daily Texan noticed similarities between Attorneygate and the death penalty clemency memos back on April 10th.

Two years ago, as Alberto Gonzales faced confirmation hearings to be the next U.S. attorney general, Texas Students Against the Death Penalty stressed that the nation’s chief law enforcement officer “must demonstrate the highest commitment to fairness, due process and equal protection under the law.”

We based our opposition to Gonzales’ confirmation on our belief that his track record on death penalty cases in Texas failed to meet this challenge. Time and again, the legal analysis he provided to then-Gov. George W. Bush on the eve of executions failed to include any discussion of the most salient issues, including severe mental retardation and mental illness, abysmally poor legal representation and, in more than a handful of cases, credible claims of innocence.

Sadly, our fears have been justified with the recent revelations that differences regarding the death penalty played a role in the dismissal of at least three U.S. attorneys.

Then and now, Gonzales placed Bush’s political agenda above honesty, integrity and commitment to fairness. In Texas, this took the form of cursory review – and then denial in every single case but one – of clemency applications as Bush parlayed his “tough-on-crime” persona into a successful run for the Republican presidential nomination.

More than similarities, though, back in March the LA Times reported that some of the Attorneygate firings were about the death penalty.

Three fired U.S. attorneys balked at seeking death penalty

Prosecutors in California, Michigan and Arizona share a reluctance to pursue the ultimate punishment.
By Richard A. Serrano, Tom Hamburger and Ralph Vartabedian, Times Staff Writers
March 26, 2007

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.

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.

This administration is rife with poor management, poor leadership, and poor lawyering. The litany of greatest hits is so lengthy and well-known it barely bears summarizing:

Gonzales as Texas AG; Gonzales as orchestrator of the Guantanamo legal frameworks for torture and violating the Geneva Conventions; Gonzales as boss of both Kyle Sampson and the 93 U.S. Attorneys; Bush as chief operating officer of the Texas Rangers; Bush on 9/11; Bush and Katrina; Bush as boss of Don Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales, and Michael Brown.

Heckuva job, Georgie. Gonzales needs to go, and so does his boss.

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