Written and reported by Matthew Blake:

The death penalty is finally beginning to remerge as an issue inside the halls of Congress–and it only took the second Congressional power shift in 50 years and the unprecedented Department of Justice dismissal of 8 or 9 US attorneys to make it happen.

Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold on Wednesday held a hearing of the Senate Judiciary’s Subcommittee on the Constitution that drew attention to the lack of information available about when the Justice Department seeks capital punishment and the financial and social costs involved when it does. Fired US Attorney Paul Charlton testified that even he did not know death penalty protocol under Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and told the committee that he was fired after refusing to authorize the death penalty for a case with no corroborating forensic evidence.

"It is fitting that we will hear from some of the same organizations that testified at that last hearing in June 2001," Feingold said, in reference to the last time the Senate held a hearing on the subject. "That is because in some respects, we know little more today than we did six years ago."

The US is the only Western democracy that still employs the death penalty. Yet since 2000 the Justice Department has not released any data on how many capital cases it has decided to prosecute, the success rate of its prosecution, the race and ethnicity of the defendants and the cost of pursuing a death penalty case. This is not merely another instance of the Bush administration keeping the public in the dark–the department itself apparently does not keep track.

"A lot of resources go into prosecuting a death penalty case," Feingold said to Deputy Assistant Attorney General Barry Sabin, who represented embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. "Now, does the department track monetary cost in any way?"

"I don’t believe we do that," Sabin said.

"Do you have any sense of what it costs for the US attorney’s office to pursue a death penalty case?" Feingold asked.

Sabin replied he did not and when Feingold requested the Department look into the matter, Sabin said he could not promise that such information is readily obtainable. In preparation for the hearing, Feingold had learned from DOJ that in one-third of all cases where the Department sought the death penalty the Attorney General overruled a prior decision from a US Attorney that capital punishment should not be pursued.

One such overruling has played a starring role in the scandal surrounding Gonzales’s dismissal of Arizona prosecutor Paul Charlton. Charlton concisely told the committee that in United States v. Ricos Rio, he defied the Justice Department’s authorization of the death penalty in a murder case after the Department declined to fund exhumation of the victim’s body, which likely would have determined the defendant’s guilt. Charlton had requested to meet with the Attorney General about Ricos Rio and was denied. He was told by former Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty’s staff that "McNulty had spent a significant amount of time on this issue with the Attorney General, perhaps as much as 5 to 10 minutes."

Stunningly, that’s more time than Congress spent on the issue over the past six years.