Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Gonzalez the Cipher

Gonzalez the Cipher

That's the title of Washington Post OpEd columnist Richard Cohen's must-read latest. LINK

Dead men tell no tales. But if they did, the ones they would tell about Alberto Gonzales would by now be familiar: an expert in giving his boss, George W. Bush, precisely what he wanted. The dead men in this case are the ones who were executed while Bush was governor of Texas and Gonzales was his legal counsel. Sometimes, as often seems true with Gonzales, the details eluded him.

Clearly, those details could have made the difference between life and death -- or, given the realities of the Texas system, death and a remote chance of a reprieve. But since Bush was not likely to temporarily block any execution or even to raise his voice in mild objection to a particularly heinous railroading, Gonzales kept his death penalty memos short and to the point. Almost always, the point was that the execution should proceed.

The first 57 of the 152 death penalty cases Bush presided over occurred when Gonzales was general counsel. It was his job to prepare a document summarizing the facts of the case. Those memos were examined by Alan Berlow of the Atlantic magazine, who reported on them back in 2003. What he found was that of the 57, there was hardly a case that gave Gonzales pause -- not the mental retardation of the condemned, not the stunning negligence of some lawyers and not the occasional use of questionable police methods. Gonzales was always the imperturbable cog in Texas's killing machine.

In some respects, this should come as no surprise. Bush was -- and remains -- a major advocate of the death penalty, and he retains a touching belief in the near-perfection of the system. Indeed, one reason his Justice Department looked askance at some U.S. attorneys is that they were insufficiently enthusiastic about capital punishment. In career terms, this, in itself, is a capital crime. Gonzales, to the extent that he has any views of his own, apparently thinks as Bush does in this regard -- that is to say, he does not really think at all.

The memos provided by the Atlantic substantiate this. It's not that Gonzales never questioned a condemned prisoner's guilt; it's rather that he never wondered about the process, either. In some cases, the lack of competent legal representation was startling, or the use of dubious experts -- the infamous and discredited James Grigson ("Dr. Death"), for instance -- was appalling. Nonetheless, Gonzales's memos to Bush were serene. He apparently knew what his customer wanted and stocked his shelves accordingly. Executions, almost no matter what, were to proceed.

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