Sacrificing the death penalty to nab suspects

Everybody has to make sacrifices in the war against terrorism. For President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft, it may be something as ideologically sacred as capital punishment.

As governor of Texas, Mr. Bush presided over 40 of the nation's 85 executions last year. It could be assumed that he would seek the ultimate penalty for terrorists convicted of murdering Americans.

Zacarias Moussaoui, the first person charged in the United States in the Sept. 11 terrorist plot, was indicted on six counts, four of which carry a possible death sentence. The northern district of Virginia, chosen for his jury trial, is considered friendly to capital punishment.

But the Moroccan Moussaoui is a French citizen, and France, like all of the European Union, has abolished the death penalty. The French minister of justice, Marylise Lebranchu, says, "We do not accept the death penalty. There has to be a discussion with the United States."

The French could be ignored because Mr. Moussaoui is safely in American hands. But other suspects remain to be extradited. Spain is holding eight suspects that it will not turn over to American justice unless assured they will not be subject to capital punishment. Britain is holding Lotfi Raissi, suspected of organizing pilot training for hijackers.

Mr. Ashcroft toured European countries (but not France) last week, assuring governments that the US respects their laws and traditions and will deal with extradition requests "on a case-by-case basis." But, at some point, Ashcroft will undoubtedly have to face the painful decision of whether to waive the death penalty in order to get his hands on a wanted suspect.

In dealing with crime, there are precedents for waiving application of the death penalty as a price for extradition. Last July, Ashcroft joined Pennsylvania state authorities in a no-capital-punishment guarantee to meet the French condition for the extradition of Ira Einhorn, a counterculture figure wanted on a murder charge dating back to 1977. In the same month of July, the same pledge was made to France to gain the extradition of James Charles Kopp, wanted for the 1998 killing of an upstate New York abortion doctor.

For those who believe in capital punishment as fervently as many countries despise it, agreeing to spare the lives of mass murderers is a tough call to make. But it's a call that may have to be made if some of these murderers are to face justice.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at NPR.

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