Federal Government Seeks Death Penalty

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Reporter of the New York Times wrote a compelling article stating the federal government will resume executions of death row inmates after a nearly two-decade hiatus, countering a broad national shift away from the death penalty as public support for capital punishment has dwindled.

Attorney General William P. Barr announced that five men convicted of murdering children will be executed in December and January at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, and additional executions will be scheduled later. The announcement reversed what had been essentially a moratorium on the federal death penalty since 2003.

Prosecutors still seek the death penalty in some federal cases, including for Dylann S. Roof, the avowed white supremacist who gunned down nine African-American churchgoers in 2015, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber. Both were convicted and sentenced to death.

President Trump has long supported the death penalty, declaring last year that drug dealers should be executed. By applying it to inmates convicted of murdering children, he may make a more politically powerful argument for it amid diminishing public support.

But public attitudes toward the death penalty have changed in the ensuing decades. Support for it went from nearly 80 percent in 1996 to a two-decade low three years ago, when just under half of Americans polled backed it for people convicted of murder, according to the Pew Research Center. Public backing of capital punishment ticked back up to 54 percent last year, the center found.

Capital punishment fell out of favor as researchers questioned whether it deterred people from committing heinous crimes and as more defense lawyers proved that their clients had been wrongfully convicted. Fewer than two dozen executions have occurred annually in the United States in recent years, down from a high of 98 in 1999, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Civil rights advocates have also noted the racial disparity among inmates on death row and argued that capital punishment was disproportionately applied to black men.

“The death penalty is plagued by racial bias and geographic bias,” said Cassandra Stubbs, director of the Capital Punishment Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. “Junk science has played an outsized role in who gets the death penalty and who does not,” she added, pointing to instances of experts overstating hair or fingerprint evidence in court testimony.

SUPREME COURT WEIGHS IN

Benner reports that the U.S. Supreme Court term that ended last month featured several bitter clashes over whether inmates can challenge the use of the chemicals used in lethal injections on the grounds that they can cause intense pain.

In 2015, the Supreme Court examined whether lethal injection was unconstitutionally cruel punishment. The justices upheld the use of lethal injection, but in a dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer urged the Supreme Court to take a fresh look at the constitutionality of the death penalty.

He said there was evidence that innocent people had been executed, that death row exonerations were frequent, that death sentences were imposed arbitrarily and that the capital justice system was warped by racial discrimination and politics.

But only Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Justice Breyer’s dissent, and there have been no signs that a majority of the justices have qualms about the constitutionality of the death penalty. To the contrary, the court’s five more conservative members have expressed frustration with what they say is litigation gamesmanship used by opponents of capital punishment to put off executions.

More broadly, they have noted that the punishment is contemplated in the Fifth and 14th Amendments, which call for grand juries in federal cases involving “a capital or other infamous crime” and say that no person may be deprived “of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.”