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Controversy in Mo. Senate Race

April 30, 1999

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) _ Thirty people have been executed during Democrat Mel Carnahan’s governorship, more than four times the number put to death during the two terms Republican John Ashcroft occupied the office.

It was Carnahan who created the office of crime victims’ rights, toughened sentences for dangerous juveniles and sexual predators, and authorized the construction of five new prisons.

But Carnahan also commuted the death sentence of a murderer, an ``act of mercy″ personally requested by the pope that has put the governor on the defensive in his race to unseat Ashcroft from his Senate seat.

``Ashcroft is going to try to make all the political hay he can,″ said Saint Louis University political scientist Ken Warren. ``He wants to try to make Carnahan look as soft as possible on crime, even though Carnahan’s record shows he is not soft on crime.″

The Senate race already has had its share of spats observers like Warren have described as utterly bogus. Earlier this month, each camp suggested the other’s Web site established links to sordid material.

That struck many as absurd, considering the spotless reputations of the candidates. Ashcroft is a gospel-singing son of an Assemblies of God minister, and Carnahan is a Southern Baptist deacon.

The commutation question, however, promises to have a much longer political shelf life. The controversy hasn’t abated since Pope John Paul II looked into the governor’s eyes three months ago and urged him to prevent Darrell Mease’s execution.

Ashcroft is holding a hearing in St. Louis on Saturday to discuss a crime victims’ rights proposal. The headline on his news release: ``Family Members Will Tell of Impact of Mease Commutation.″

The star witnesses at the hearing will be Buck and Anita Lawrence, parents of Willie Lawrence, the 19-year-old paraplegic killed by Mease’s shotgun blast in 1988.

``He had no defense,″ Anita Lawrence said of her son after the Jan. 28 commutation. ``It was like killing a little old ant.″

The Lawrences were furious to learn of the commutation through news reports, and Carnahan told a crime victims’ rally on Thursday that he regretted the ``human error″ in failing to notify them.

``But one single act should not diminish the substantial record on crime victims’ rights that we have worked so hard to shape together,″ he said.

Carnahan said he was simply moved by the pope’s ``extraordinary and specific request,″ made in the presence of Vice President Al Gore under the soaring dome of the St. Louis Cathedral Basilica.

``It is, in fact, an act of mercy,″ he said.

Carnahan dismissed Ashcroft’s hearing as ``transparently political,″ which the senator denied.

In a telephone interview Thursday, Ashcroft said the Lawrences ``can contribute an awareness of what a crime victim’s circumstance is in a setting that relates to a commutation or a pardon.″

Missouri resumed death penalties in January 1989 while Ashcroft was governor, and he never commuted such a sentence. Besides Mease, Carnahan has commuted one other, for an inmate who was declared mentally retarded.

Ashcroft wants to amend a proposal sponsored by Sens. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to require advance notice of commutation decisions for victims and their relatives.

The senator and the Lawrences’ attorney, Mark Richardson, said the parents asked for an opportunity to talk about the commutation.

``These are not political people,″ Richardson said. ``They are genuinely, willingly coming forward.″

Bev Livingston, leader of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers in Missouri and a longtime victims’ advocate, said she welcomed any attention to victims’ rights.

``I just would hate to see them be victimized twice by being exploited for political purposes,″ Ms. Livingston said of the Lawrences. ``That would be a crime in itself.″

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