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Witnesses Testify on Behalf of Ashcroft

Aired January 18, 2001 - 12:07 p.m. ET


JEANNE MESERVE, CNN ANCHOR: We are going to take you, now, back up to Capitol Hill where the Judiciary Committee of the Senate is continuing its hearings into the nomination of John Ashcroft to be attorney general.

Right now Congressman J.C. Watts is testifying. Let's listen to him.

REP. J.C. WATTS (R), OKLAHOMA: I've seen it 23 times, and it's must-see viewing for everybody.

The story is, Copper the hound puppy and Todd, the orphan fox, they became the best of friends. They did everything together. They laughed and they played together to no end. Then one day, Copper the hound and Todd the fox found themselves all grown up. Todd wanted to get together with Copper to have some more fun and relive the good old days. And Copper's heart seemed to skip a bit when he had to say to Todd, I can't play with you any more, I'm a hunting dog now. In other words, I can't be your friend anymore, forget we were the best of friends, forget we laughed together and played together, forget all those great times together, and all those other things, forget about all of that, I'm a hunting dog now.

Well, I notice that any time we have a confirmation, the hunting dogs come out. We have them on the Republican side, we have them on the Democrat side.

Members of the committee, I'm not saying that John Ashcroft has been best of friends with all of you. However, over the last six years, you've seen his heart, you know him. You've observed him up close and personal. You know he's not a racist, as some would suggest. You know he's not anti-woman, as some would suggest. Yes, you know that just like Senator Lieberman, John Ashcroft's faith is very important to him. They both never want their faith to be offensive to anyone, yet they never apologize for it.

You have observed Senator Ashcroft to be a man of compassion, strength, and integrity. He is extremely qualified. He is eminently qualified to be the next attorney general of the greatest nation in all the world.

Obviously, this decision will rest with you, the senators. But I encourage your support for Senator John Ashcroft as the next attorney general to uphold the laws and the Constitution of the United States, so help him, God.

Thank you, very much, Chairman Leahy.

LEAHY: Thank you, Mr. Watts.

I state parenthetically that I'm 60 years old, and that's quite a bit older than you are. Our children came along before we had the VCRs as youngsters. By the time we had it, they were old enough they didn't want me around to see what they were watching. So I didn't have the chance to memorize these. I now have a soon-to-be 3-year-old grandson. If you'd like me to tell you the whole script of "Thomas The Train," every song, I can do it, in my sleep, and often have -- congressman.

REP. KENNETH HULSHOF (R), MISSOURI: Mr. Chairman, thank you. I appreciate very much the invitation to be here. As you alluded to just a moment ago, I'm sure my dear mother back in Missouri appreciates your kind words today, especially in light of the little brouhaha that occurred last night. I do appreciate the chance to be with you.

LEAHY: I assure your mother that you are one of the hardest working and most valued members of the Congress.

HULSHOF: I appreciate that, Mr. Chairman. That's high praise.

Members of the committee, as pleased and honored as I am to be here today with my good friend and colleague J. C. Watts, my appearance here today is not as a sitting member of the United States House of Representatives.

Mr. Chairman, if it is permissible, I would like to have my entire written statement submitted into the record so that I could perhaps address some of the points that have come before this committee in the last two days.

LEAHY: It will be.

HULSHOF: I sat through and listened very closely to Judge White's testimony today, and I found it very compelling and very sincere -- no less compelling and no less sincere than the testimony that you heard from your former colleague, I believe, John Ashcroft over the last two days.

I do not know Judge White personally; I know him from the pages of the opinions that he has written. I presume that he knows me through the many thousands of pages of court transcripts that I had the occasion to participate in in criminal trials back in Missouri. And I'm not here in any respect to cast dispersions. I'm a member of good-standing in the Missouri Bar, and I'm very watchful of my comments toward a sitting member of the judiciary.

However, as the co-prosecutor in the James Johnson case, which has received such national attention -- and I think it's received national attention not because of the gruesomeness of the facts of a convicted multiple cop-killer, but because, as my friend J.C. has alluded to, these horrendous charges that John Ashcroft's vote against Judge White was based on other than legal grounds. These comments or insinuations, even overtly or not so overtly of racial motivations have me, as John's friend and as a Missourian, deeply troubled.

And so, let me, if I can, as a fact witness, talk a little bit about this particular criminal case. I was a special prosecutor for the Missouri attorney general for a number of years and was assigned to assist the locally elected prosecuting authority, John Kay (ph) in Moniteau County, back when these crimes occurred in 1991.

Mr. Chairman, you all have talked at length about those facts. And I set them out in my written statement, but I want to just focus on some things, perhaps, to give you a sense of gravity about what this case meant to this small, rural community.

In early December of 1991, Moniteau County Deputy Leslie Roark (ph) was dispatched to a disturbance call in rural Moniteau County. And as any one in law enforcement can tell you, those are some of those difficult cases to respond to, because you never know the situation that you are being injected to.

Well, after Deputy Roark assured himself that this domestic quarrel had ended at the James Johnson residence, and as he turned to retreat to go to his waiting patrol car, James Johnson whipped out a 38-caliber pistol from the waistband of his pants and fired two shots into the back of the retreating officer.

Johnson then went back into the home, sat down, but where he could hear the moans of the officer clinging valiantly to life, laying face down on the gravel driveway outside his home. At that point, Johnson then got up from the table, walked outside, pointed his gun over the fallen officer and pulled the trigger one last time in an executive-style killing. And the thing about this particular crime that is particularly offensive is that, as they say in the law enforcement business: The officer, though armed, never cleared leather. His gun remained strapped in his holster.

Shortly after that, James Johnson got into his vehicle and negotiated 10 or 12 miles of winding road, looking for the sheriff of the county, Kenny Jones. He knew where the sheriff lived. And as luck would have it, Sheriff Jones was not at the residence. But the sheriff's wife, Pam, was.

And again, as fate would have it on that night, Mrs. Jones was leading a group of her church friends in the Christmas program. And if I can try to, Mr. Chairman, paint a visual picture for you, imagine a normal living room, somewhere in America, with a women seated at the head and women unfolding chairs around her in the living room. With Pam Jones 8-year-old daughter, Lacy (ph), at her knee. Christmas decorations adorned the living room and on a table next to the window, brightly wrapped Christmas packages waiting to be exchanged.

What you cannot see in that picture, however, just outside that window, James Johnson lay and wait with a 22-caliber rifle. And from his perch shot five times inside the house, killing, gunning down Pam Jones in cold blood in front of her family. If the chairman would permit, he is not here to testify today, but if I might be permitted to single out Pam Jones' husband who made the trip here today, sheriff of Moniteau County, Kenny Jones. And may I ask him to stand, Mr. Chairman?

LEAHY: Of course.

HULSHOF: There's a statement that Sheriff Jones has submitted and, perhaps, if time permits at the conclusion, there are a couple of excerpts that I might like to emphasize, but please, I hope you would take time to examine the entirety of Sheriff Jones' written testimony, particularly as it points to the dispute about this letter from law enforcement and who was the initiating body, in that regard. And I'll move in the interests of time.

LEAHY: Direct the staff to make copies for each senator and make sure a copy is given to each member of the panel.

HULSHOF: Mr. Chairman, again, without further delving into the facts, because I think, as most of you have indicated through these days, that you have read the supreme court opinion where Judge White dissented. It was the sole dissent.

But what I do want to focus on is the record regarding assistance of counsel, because apparently, as I listened to Judge White this morning, that was his sole basis for voting to overturn and reverse these four death sentences for these four crimes. There actually were two other victims who had fallen victim to Mr. Johnson that night, and a fifth officer who was wounded seriously who miraculously survived. The jury in that county found four counts of first degree murder, with a corresponding death sentence on each of those counts of murder.

The points I'd like to raise briefly about the quality of James Johnson's representation is this: He hired counsel of his own choosing. He picked from our area in mid-Missouri what we've referred to as -- as I referred to as a dream team.

And Senator Sessions, as you pointed out earlier, the resumes of these three individuals, who were experienced attorneys in litigation, as well as criminal law, attorneys who had tried a capital murder case together, there was a finding by another court that they provide highly skilled representation as they tried to deal with these very unassailable facts, this very strong case that the prosecution had. There was a detailed confession Mr. Johnson had given to local law enforcement officers.

There were other incriminating statements that he had made to lay witnesses. We had circumstantial evidence, including firearms identification, a host of other factors. And against this backdrop of a very tough prosecution case, these three defense attorneys labored mightily to try to provide an insanity defense, post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly referred to as the Vietnam flashback syndrome.

And without question -- and again, perhaps with just a further comment -- I defended a capital murder case as a court-appointed public defender. And then after I switched sides and became, as you, Mr. Chairman, on the side of law enforcement, became a prosecuting attorney, over the course of my career I think I prosecuted some 16 capital murder cases in Missouri, and I can tell you without question that this team of defense attorneys were very able and provided very skilled, adequate representation as the law would require.

Finally, regarding the point, and I know the chairman's been gracious with my time, what I would like to do is read just a couple of the excerpts, as Sheriff Jones is here and will not be called as a witness, but particularly again on this point of the letter from law enforcement authorities.

Says Sheriff Jones (ph): "As you know, much has been said about John Ashcroft and his fitness for this office. I, for one, support his nomination and urge this committee to support him as well.

"Last year, Senator Ashcroft was unjustly labeled for his opposition to the nomination of Judge Ronnie White to the federal district court. This one event has wrongly called into question his honor and integrity.

"Be assured that Senator Ashcroft had no other reason that I know about to oppose Judge White except that I asked him to. I opposed Judge White's nomination to the federal bench, and I asked Senator Ashcroft to join me because of Judge White's opinion on a death penalty case."

Moving to page three, again, Sheriff Jones, "In his opinion, Judge White urged that Johnson be given a second chance at freedom. I cannot understand his reasoning. I know that the four people Johnson killed were not given a second chance.

"When I learned that Judge White was picked by President Clinton to sit on the federal bench, I was outraged," says Sheriff Jones. "Because of Judge White's dissenting opinion on the Johnson case, I felt he was unsuitable to be appointed for life to such an important and powerful position. During the Missouri Sheriffs' Association annual conference in 1999, I started a petition drive among the sheriffs to oppose the nomination. The petition simply requested that consideration be given to Judge White's dissenting opinion in the Johnson case as a factor in his appointment to the federal bench. Seventy-seven Missouri sheriffs, both Democrats and Republicans, signed the petition, and it was available to anyone who asked.

"Further, I asked," said Sheriff Jones, "I also asked that the National Sheriffs' Association support us in opposing Judge White's nomination. They willingly did so. And I'm grateful that they joined us and wrote a strong letter opposing Judge White's nomination."

And with that, I appreciate the deference of the chairman. I would be happy to answer questions about this case or others.

LEAHY: I thank you and thank both members. And I do appreciate Sheriff Jones being here. I repeat part of what I said on the Senate floor about Sheriff Jones on October 21, 1999. I said, "I certainly understand and appreciate Sheriff Kenny Jones deciding to write the fellow sheriffs about this nomination. Sheriff Jones' wife was killed in the brutal rampage of James Johnson. And all senators give their respect and sympathy to Sheriff Jones and his family."

The day of the debate, the one we all agreed upon, sheriff, was how horrified we were at what happened and the sympathy we have. Like a number of others in the Senate, I have prosecuted a number of murder cases -- for eight years I tried virtually all the murder cases, tried them personally -- that came within our jurisdiction.

MESERVE: You've been listening to testimony in the John Ashcroft nomination, but we're going to break away now.



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