During his long political career, tough John Ashcroft has
rarely, if ever, spoken out on behalf of the rights of criminal
defendants. He carried out seven
executions as the governor of Missouri. In the Senate, he supported fewer
protections for death-row inmates as well as harsher penalties for juvenile
offenders. He opposes expanded treatment for drug offenders. Last year, he
fiercely (and successfully) opposed the nomination of Ronnie White to a federal
judgeship, because the black jurist is supposedly “pro-criminal.”
But there’s at least one criminal defendant for whom Mr.
Ashcroft-now awaiting confirmation as U.S. Attorney General-has demonstrated
real concern. That would be Dr. Charles T. Sell, a St. Louis dentist indicted
by the Justice Department on charges that include conspiracy to murder an
F.B.I. agent and a federal witness.
The strange case of Dr. Sell-imprisoned for much of the past
three years in the psychiatric ward of the federal prison in Springfield,
Mo.-began in May 1997, when he was arrested in his office by federal agents on
charges of defrauding Medicaid. A year later, the government charged the
dentist and his wife, Mary Sell, with plotting to kill the F.B.I. agent who
arrested him, as well as a former employee who was the chief witness against
him. The evidence includes taped conversations described as “incriminating” by
reporter who listened to them, and statements by a couple who say the Sells
tried to hire them to carry out the murders.
While serving as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee,
Mr. Ashcroft made several inquiries to the Justice Department on behalf of the
dentist, according to Gordon Baum, head of the
Council of Conservative Citizens, a militant white racialist group
headquartered in Missouri, and the Post-Dispatch .
As recently as last September, while he campaigned for re-election to the
Senate, Mr. Ashcroft met personally with a prominent C.C.C. member named Thomas
Bugel to discuss how he could assist Dr. Sell.
The case has remained in legal limbo since 1998 because
federal authorities believe Dr. Sell is mentally ill and therefore unfit to
stand trial. While incarcerated, he has refused to take anti-psychotic drugs
prescribed by a government psychiatrist. He believes that the Clinton
administration is persecuting him because, as an Army Reserve officer, he
criticized the government’s conduct during the Branch Davidian siege in Waco,
Texas. Federal prosecutors have declined to comment on the case.
But his prosecution and imprisonment have become a
cause célèbre among leaders of the
C.C.C. Mr. Baum, who resides near St. Louis, confirmed that Dr. Sell has been a
staunch C.C.C. member. (He advertised his dental services on Mr. Baum’s radio
program.) As a longtime friend and former patient, Mr. Baum added that he
firmly believes in the accused dentist’s professed innocence.
“We as an organization have never made any efforts to be
involved in Dr. Sell’s plight,”
insisted Mr. Baum, who gained notoriety briefly in 1998 following media reports
about Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s involvement with the C.C.C.’s
Mississippi chapter. He said he doubted that Mr. Ashcroft’s assistance to Dr.
Sell had anything to do with his C.C.C. connections. “Everything has been done
by individuals, and they’ve probably kept the C.C.C. out of it,” he said.
Yet reports about the case appear on the C.C.C. Web site,
where Mr. Ashcroft’s nomination as Attorney General was recently lauded because
of hopes that he will free Dr. Sell.
Although Mr. Bugel, the C.C.C. member with whom Mr.
Ashcroft met to discuss Dr. Sell’s
case, is no longer active in local politics, he became well known in St. Louis
a decade ago while serving on the St. Louis School Board. He led a white
faction that was widely criticized for inflaming tensions in the racially
divided city. He also once headed the Metro South Citizens’ Council, an
offshoot of the White Citizens’ Councils set up across the South to oppose
Mr. Bugel said his
support of Dr. Sell has nothing to do with politics, but reflects his concern
over “the right to a speedy trial and to be free from cruel and unusual
punishment.” The government is withholding videotapes, he said, that would
prove the dentist was beaten, scalded and shackled for 24 hours. He pointed out
that Senator Christopher Bond and Representative Jim Talent, both
Missouri Republicans, have also made
official inquiries on behalf of Dr. Sell. “We got a thousand people to sign a
petition asking our Congressional delegation to look into this mistreatment,
which we called torture,” he said.
Mr. Bugel said he wonders why neither of Missouri’s two
Democrats in Congress, Richard Gephardt and William Clay, responded to his
pleas for help. But it might be just as fair to wonder how Mr. Ashcroft-who
will oversee the F.B.I. if he is confirmed as Attorney General-decides which
defendants are worthy of his concern and which are not.