Ashcroft Defends Vote Against Ronnie White For Federal Judgeship

By Jim Burns | July 7, 2008 | 8:27 PM EDT

( - Attorney General designate John Ashcroft defended Wednesday his Senate vote against Ronnie White, a black Missouri Supreme Court judge being named to a federal judgeship. Many liberal groups believe Ashcroft's opposition to White is a good reason to prevent him from becoming Attorney General. Ashcroft thought White was "soft on crime."

And he did not budge from that opposition throughout the hearing. He told Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., that he was moved by letters from Missouri sheriffs and White's vote to overturn the conviction of a man who killed a sheriff's wife and three lawmen.

Didn't White say the defendant might deserve the death penalty but had incompetent counsel? Durbin asked.

"That's an inadequate point for overturning a death penalty -- mere incompetence without a showing...incompetency affected the outcome of the trial," Ashcroft shot back.

"My opposition to Judge Ronnie White was well-founded," Mr. Ashcroft said. "My legal review revealed a troubling pattern of his willingness to modify settled law in criminal cases."

At issue is a 1991 Moniteau County, Missouri murder case. Jimmy Johnson was accused of shooting County Deputy Sheriff Les Roark and wounding two others at Johnson's house. Roark had driven out to Johnson's house to investigate a domestic dispute. Later that same day, Johnson shot Pam Jones, the wife of Moniteau County Sheriff Kenny Jones, then traveled to murder Cooper County, Missouri Sheriff Charles Smith and Miller County Deputy Sheriff Sandra Wilson. He surrendered later after holding an 82-year-old woman hostage.

Justice Ronnie White overruled the Missouri jury that convicted Johnson and sentenced him to death. That action, according to Ashcroft, disqualified White from becoming a federal judge.

Johnson's defense attorneys said their client was not guilty by reason of insanity. They claimed he was suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from his service in Vietnam and that on that December night he actually thought he was back in combat in Southeast Asia.

Johnson was a civilian helicopter mechanic with the Missouri National Guard. In 1970, he served a four-month stint in Vietnam. While in the Army, he was rated as an "expert" marksman.

He appealed his case to the Missouri Supreme Court, seeking to have both his conviction and death sentences overturned. Four justices voted in favor of sentencing Johnson to death, but Judge Ronnie White dissented.

White argued that the Vietnam defense made by Johnson's lawyer was so inept that Johnson should get a retrial.

"While I share the majority's horror at the carnage, I cannot uphold this as an acceptable standard of representation for a defendant accused of capital murder. I would hold that Mr. Johnson received ineffective counsel, was prejudiced thereby, and is entitled to a retrial," White concluded.

"I did criticize Judge White's record as being pro-criminal. Not a single Republican voted for Judge White because of a substantial number of law enforcement organizations that opposed his nomination. What bothered me about the case was that the judge basically decided to lower the standard," Ashcroft said.

White will testify before the committee on Thursday. Representative J.C. Watts (R-OK), Chairman of the House Republican Conference will be testifying in favor of Ashcroft before the committee on Thursday as well.

"I am supporting a man of the highest integrity and character for Attorney General. John Ashcroft is extremely qualified to restore honor and dignity to the Justice Department, and I thank the Senate Judiciary Committee for inviting me to share my thoughts on this nomination," Watts said Wednesday on Capitol Hill.