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Senators Hear Sharply Different Views On A.G. Nominee From Outside Witnesses


On Capitol Hill this week, senators spent about nine hours pushing President Trump's nominee to lead the Justice Department for his views on the Russia investigation. But the next attorney general will inherit a portfolio that includes a broad range of issues, from violent crime to civil rights. Today, senators heard outside witnesses express sharply different views on how the nominee, William Barr, might handle those matters. NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The last time William Barr held the reins at the Justice Department, he was confronted with a public safety crisis right away. In August 1991, more than 100 Cuban inmates at a federal prison in Talladega, Ala., ignited a riot. Corrections officers and other workers were caught in the middle - 10 hostages in all.


CHUCK CANTERBURY: Over the course of the nine-day siege, it was clear then that negotiations were failing. General Barr ordered the FBI to breach the prison and rescue the hostages.

C JOHNSON: That's Chuck Canterbury, head of the Fraternal Order of Police, remembering the incident at Barr's Senate confirmation hearing today. Those hostages were freed with no casualties. Another former attorney general, Michael Mukasey, told senators that episode reveals a lot about Barr's leadership style.


MICHAEL MUKASEY: And then follow that up by not taking any public credit for it. That's the kind of person he is and that's the kind of judgment he has.

C JOHNSON: Current and former law enforcement officials urged the Senate to vote for Barr to become President Trump's next attorney general. They cited his deep experience and his intellect. Mary Kate Cary worked for Barr during his earlier stint at Justice under President George H.W. Bush.


MARY KATE CARY: I found that Bill Barr has a brilliant legal mind. He knows Mandarin Chinese, and he plays the bagpipes.

C JOHNSON: But 27 years ago, the violent crime rate was through the roof. Things are different now, but some civil rights advocates argue Barr's thinking has not kept up with the times.


DERRICK JOHNSON: We need an attorney general who understands both the history and persistence of racism in our criminal justice system.

C JOHNSON: Derrick Johnson is president of the NAACP.


D JOHNSON: In 1992, he said, I think our system is fair. It does not treat people differently. And just yesterday, he told Senator Booker overall - and I quote - "the system treats black and whites fairly." This statement is singly disqualifying.

C JOHNSON: Last month, Congress passed and the president signed an important criminal justice measure, the FIRST STEP Act. That law will give judges more power to tailor prison sentences to individual defendants, and it will give prisoners the chance to apply for early release for some drug crimes. Barr has pledged to carry out the law, but Marc Morial of the National Urban League is not so sure. He points out Barr refused to back away from a policy that directs prosecutors to pursue the most serious charges they could prove in every case. Meanwhile, the Trump Justice Department has reversed positions in several prominent voting rights cases, and Morial worries that Barr will continue that trend.


MARC MORIAL: This nation needs an attorney general who will dramatically change course and enforce civil rights laws with vigor and independence. Based on his alarming record, we are convinced that William Barr will not do so.

C JOHNSON: The most emotional moment of the hearing came from Sharon Washington Risher. She talked about a phone call she got in 2015 after her mother and cousins were shot at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.


SHARON WASHINGTON RISHER: A house of worship - it's supposed to be a refuge from the storms of everyday life. But that young man robbed my family and the eight other families of their loved ones.

C JOHNSON: The man who killed those African-American worshippers has been sentenced to death. Risher says the next attorney general needs to do more to expand background checks and make sure that violent people do not get their hands on guns. On Tuesday, Bill Barr said keeping weapons out of the hands of mentally ill people was, quote, "the problem of our time." Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.