Capital Punishment at the Federal Level

Capital Punishment at the Federal Level

In addition to the death penalty laws in many states, the federal government has also employed capital punishment for certain federal offenses, such as murder of a government official, kidnapping resulting in death, running a large-scale drug enterprise, and treason. When the Supreme Court struck down state death penalty statutes in Furman v. Georgia, the federal death penalty statutes suffered from the same problems that the state statutes did. As a result, death sentences under the old federal death penalty statutes have not been upheld.

Expansion of the Federal Death Penalty Statue

In 1988, a new federal death penalty statute was enacted for murder in the course of a drug-kingpin conspiracy. The statute was modeled on the post-Gregg statutes that the Supreme Court had approved. Since its enactment, six people have been sentenced to death for violating this law, though none has been executed.

In 1994, President Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act that expanded the federal death penalty to sixty crimes, three of which do not involve murder. The exceptions are espionage, treason, and drug trafficking in large amounts.

Two years later, in response to the Oklahoma City bombing of a federal building, President Clinton signed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. The Act, which affects both state and federal prisoners, restricts review in federal courts by establishing stricter filing deadlines, limiting the opportunity for evidentiary hearings, and ordinarily allowing only a single habeas corpus filing in federal court.

Proponents of the death penalty argue that this streamlining will speed up the death penalty process and significantly reduce its cost. Others fear that quicker, more limited federal review may increase the risk of executing innocent defendants.

When he was executed on June 11, 2001, Timothy McVeigh became the first federal prisoner executed in 38 years. McVeigh was executed by lethal injection at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, for the April 19, 1995, Oklahoma City bombing. Before McVeigh, the most famous U.S. execution was Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who spied for the Soviet Union and were executed in 1953.

Death Penalty Throughout the Individual States

Although the Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the death penalty, there have been more recent efforts to restrict its use at the state and federal levels. For example, the Supreme Court in 2002 prohibited the death penalty for mentally challenged criminals and in 2008 ruled that it could not be used in state cases wherein the defendant did not commit murder. Many states have also enacted restrictions on the death penalty or at least slowed their pace of executions, with a handful abolishing it altogether in favor of life sentences.

The Philosophy of a Death Penalty

With only temporary exceptions, the death penalty has existed in America since the Colonial Period. The more interesting question is why. Statistics arguably show that capital punishment:

  • Does not work as a deterrent;
  • Provides little comfort to victims' families and loved ones;
  • Perhaps violates a "moral absolute" rule that state-sanctioned killings are wrong; and
  • Shines a light on a society that perhaps produces murderers, under the theory that "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." -Will Durant

While these philosophical questions may exist, the statistics of American Executions show:

  • Lethal injection is still, by far, the most common method;
  • Over half the executions were of white subjects; and
  • Over half the 50 United States still practice the death penalty.

Free Case Evaluation by a Criminal Defense Attorney

If you have a loved one being investigated or charged with any crime, the case may feel like a capital case to you until it's resolved amicably. But if you've been specifically charged with a capital offense, you'll want an experienced attorney immediately. Fortunately, you can get a free case evaluation from a skilled criminal defense attorney.

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