Vanita Gupta opposes the death penalty under all circumstances. That’s a respectable position, though one I disagree with. There is no problem with a high-ranking Justice Department official being personally against the death penalty, as long as her opposition doesn’t cause her to reject the law.
Yesterday, when Sen. Marsha Blackburn asked Gupta about her opposition to the death penalty, the nominee assured the Senator that when she was at the DOJ she enforced the death penalty, notwithstanding her personal views. Gupta cited the case of Dylann Roof, the racist who killed Black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina. Gupta said that she enforced the law as to Roof and that he was convicted and sentenced to death “under her watch.”
Gupta’s statement is true, but extremely misleading. In reality, Gupta recommended not seeking the death penalty for Dylann Roof. In a memo explaining her recommendation, Gupta claimed that mitigating factors outweighed aggravating ones in Roof’s case.
I’ve heard that the U.S. attorney in South Carolina was so outraged by Gupta’s stance that he threatened to go public with a denunciation of the DOJ for not caring sufficiently about the lives of the slain Blacks.
Fortunately, as I understand it, the Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, rejected Gupta’s recommendation. That’s why the death penalty was sought and obtained. Yes, it happened “under Gupta’s watch.” But it happened over Gupta’s opposition.
Gupta’s position that mitigating factors outweighed aggravating ones in Roof’s case was preposterous. If true, it’s hard to imagine how mitigating factors could ever not carry the day when it comes to the death penalty. In other words, it’s hard to imagine a case in which the death penalty would be imposed.
Given the absurdity of Gupta’s legal arguments, it seems clear that her recommendation against the death penalty for Roof was driven by her ideological opposition, not by any rational view of the law. Gupta is too intelligent to have believed her legal argument. That argument was a transparent attempt to dress up her ideological preference in legal terms.
Thus, the Senate has two good reasons not to confirm Gupta: (1) her intellectually dishonest, ideologically-driven advocacy for leniency towards Dylann Roof and (2) her attempt to mislead Senators on the subject at yesterday’s hearing.