Anthropologists studying Mesoamerican cultures from the late Middle Ages through the arrival of Columbus have noted the remarkable prevalence of human sacrifice as a religious and social rite. Mel Gibson’s recent film, “Apocalypto” presents this in a series of quite stunning scenes, and while you can like or dislike Mr. Gibson and his filmmaking, my anthropologist friends tell me that his portrayal of Mayan culture at the time of the arrival of the first Europeans is remarkably accurate. Particularly the scenes with human sacrifice. And indeed, many of the earliest Catholic missionaries in this region found the cult of death to be deep rooted and frightening. Mesoamerican cultures regularly used human sacrifice to legitimize political authority. Of course, anthropologists tell us that these rituals of human sacrifice were hardly unique to the Americas – they have been documented around the world, including among the Chinese, the Celts and Nordic cultures.
Alberto Gonzales has some really remarkable attitudes about the death penalty that certainly reflect a strong measure of historical continuity. For Gonzales, however, the key is politics. He is convinced that the God of the Polls requires large quantities of human blood, served up regularly. And in exchange, the God of the Polls will assure an extended, happy reign for his party and its priestly caste. As in the days of yore, human sacrifice is the key to success.
Alan Berlow wrote in the August 2003 issue of The Atlantic about how Gonzales managed the clemency process in death penalty cases for his then- and current client, George W. Bush. Gonzales prepared a total of 57 memoranda reviewing these cases. Critics who have looked at them say these memoranda are shocking examples of legal incompetence – right up there with Gonzales’s work on the issue of torture. Suffice it to say that Gonzales never found a death penalty case that merited much consideration. Indeed, in many of these cases there were very serious failings – and at this point it seems a certainty that a good number of those convicted were actually innocent – but Gonzales’s main interest was keeping the steady drumbeat of executions going. Take the case of Terence Washington, for instance.
Washington was a thirty-three-year-old mentally retarded man with the communications skills of a seven-year-old who was executed in 1997. Gonzales’s clemency memo, according to Berlow, did not even mention his mental retardation, or his lawyer’s failure to call, at trial, for the testimony of a mental health expert on this issue. Nor did it mention that the jury never heard about Washington’s history of child abuse; he was one of ten children, all of whom “were regularly beaten with whips, water hoses, extension cords, wire hangers, and fan belts.” Of course, legal minds could differ on whether it is proper to execute the profoundly retarded. The overwhelming majority of countries on earth outlaw this practice. But nevertheless, this is a classic example of what a clemency review memorandum should spot as an issue for a client’s consideration. For Gonzales, however, the memo was a tool to soothe the conscience of his boss. He chose to talk about only one thing: the grim details of the crime.
Most importantly, it was just good politics. As a result of Gonzales’s hard work in Texas, George W. Bush met his quota. He executed 150 persons – achieving the historical high water mark in U.S. history for executions by a single governor.
Former Nixon White House legal counsel John Dean suggests, in reviewing the same evidence, that Gonzales had, in addition to a partisan political agenda, a personal one: he dearly wanted to be elevated to the Supreme Court. And he was convinced that by promoting a cult of death, he was bound to establish his bona fides with the Religious Right and pave the way to get there.
Since becoming attorney general, Gonzales has used his office to spread his attitudes about the cult of death. And today’s Washington Post contains some amazing inside detail from within the Department about just how he does it. Paul K. Charlton, the U.S. Attorney in Arizona, who was ousted when his office began an investigation of a Republican congressman suspected of improper dealings with Congressional pages (an investigation which was shut down and terminated almost immediately after his dismissal), details how he got on Gonzales’s wrong side over the death penalty.
According to Charlton, the case on which he clashed with Gonzales involved a methamphetamine dealer named Jose Rios Rico, who was charged with slaying his drug supplier. Charlton said he believed the case, which has not yet gone to trial, did not warrant the death penalty because police and prosecutors lacked forensic evidence – including a gun, DNA or the victim’s body. He said that the body was evidently buried in a landfill and that he asked Justice Department officials to pay $500,000 to $1 million for its exhumation. The department refused, Charlton said. And without such evidence, he testified, the risk of putting the wrong person to death was too high.
Charlton said that in prior cases, Ashcroft’s aides had given him the chance to discuss his recommendations against the death penalty, but that Gonzales’s staff did not offer that opportunity. He instead received a letter, dated May 31, 2006, from Gonzales, simply directing him to seek the death penalty. Charlton testified that he asked Justice officials to reconsider and had what he called a “memorable” conversation with Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty. Michael J. Elston, then McNulty’s chief of staff, called Charlton to relay that the deputy had spent “a significant amount of time on this issue with the attorney general, perhaps as much as five to 10 minutes” and that Gonzales had not changed his mind. Charlton said he then asked to speak directly with Gonzales and was denied.
Last August, D. Kyle Sampson, then Gonzales’s chief of staff, sent Elston a dismissive e-mail about the episode that said: “In the ‘you won’t believe this category,’ Paul Charlton would like a few minutes of the AG’s time.” The next month, Charlton’s name appeared on a list of prosecutors who should be fired, which Sampson sent to the White House. In April, Gonzales testified in Congress that Charlton had used “poor judgment in pushing forward a recommendation on a death penalty case.” An internal Justice Department memo, laying out the reasons each prosecutor had been fired, said Charlton had shown “repeated instances of defiance, insubordination.”
Charlton just didn’t get it. Guilt, innocence, having a firm evidentiary base – those are all just irritants. This is about keeping the Base happy. It needs the flow of fresh human sacrifice. Indeed, blood is a lubricant that keeps this political machine running.