Paul Charlton, one of nine U.S. attorneys fired last year, told Congress Wednesday that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has been overzealous...

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WASHINGTON — Paul Charlton, one of nine U.S. attorneys fired last year, told Congress Wednesday that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has been overzealous in ordering federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty, including in an Arizona murder case where no body had been recovered.

Justice Department officials had branded Charlton, the former U.S. attorney in Phoenix, disloyal because he opposed the death penalty in that case. But Charlton testified Wednesday that Gonzales has been so eager to expand the use of capital punishment that the attorney general has been inattentive to the quality of evidence in some cases — or the views of the prosecutors most familiar with them.

“No decision is more important for a prosecutor than whether or not to … deliberately and methodically take a life,” Charlton said. “And that holds true for the attorney general.”

His testimony before a Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee reviewing the use of the federal death penalty provided the most detailed account to date of Charlton’s interactions with Gonzales’ aides about the murder case that contributed to his dismissal. It also was one of the most pointed critiques of Gonzales by any of the fired federal prosecutors, whose removal touched off a furor on Capitol Hill. Eight were fired all at once late in the year.

Justice Department data presented at the hearing demonstrated that the administration’s death-penalty dispute with Charlton was not unique. The Bush administration has so far overruled prosecutors’ recommendations against its use more frequently than the Clinton administration did. The pace of overrulings picked up under Gonzales’ predecessor, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and spiked in 2005 and 2006, when the number of times Gonzales ordered prosecutors to seek the death penalty against their advice rose from three to 21.

Barry Sabin, deputy assistant attorney general for the department’s criminal division, testified, “I don’t know and haven’t evaluated the circumstances of the numbers.” He added: “There should be great respect for those who are most familiar with the facts of the case, the co-defendants and the local community.” But by law, the attorney general has final say over whether capital charges are filed.

According to Charlton, the case on which he clashed with Gonzales involved a methamphetamine dealer named Jose Rios Rico, who was charged with slaying his drug supplier. Charlton said he believed the case did not warrant the death penalty, because police and prosecutors lacked forensic evidence — including a gun, DNA or the victim’s body. He said that the body evidently was buried in a landfill and that he asked Justice Department officials to pay $500,000 to $1 million for its exhumation.

The department refused, Charlton said. And without such evidence, he testified, the risk of possibly putting the wrong person to death was too high.

Charlton said that in prior cases, Ashcroft’s aides had given him the chance to discuss his recommendations against the death penalty, but that Gonzales’ staff did not offer that opportunity. He instead received a letter, dated May 31, 2006, from Gonzales, simply directing him to seek the death penalty.