Federal Death Penalty

Pittsburgh Rabbi’s Wife Opposes Death Penalty for Tree of Life Synagogue Killings

Beth Kissileff (pictured), a writer and the wife of a rabbi who survived the shooting rampage that killed eleven worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, has asked the U.S. Department of Justice not to seek the death penalty against the man charged with committing those murders. In an opinion article for the Religion News Service, Kissileff wrote that she and her husband, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of Pittsburgh’s New Light Congregation, engaged federal prosecutors and a social worker who had come to discuss the trial of the white supremacist accused of the act of domestic terrorism in “a discussion of Jewish concepts of justice.” Three members of the New Light Congregation were among those murdered in the synagogue. Rabbi Perlman, Kissileff wrote, told the prosecution team: “Our Bible has many laws about why people should be put to death. … But our sages and rabbis decided that after biblical times these deaths mean death at the hands of heaven, not a human court.” She writes, “if as religious people we believe that life is sacred, how can we be permitted to take a life, even the life of someone who has committed horrible actions?”

Kissileff bases her conclusion that a sentence of life without parole for the synagogue shooting is more appropriate than death both on Jewish teachings against the death penalty and on her hope that the killer might yet change his white supremacist beliefs. She wrote in an article for The Jerusalem Post that “[w]hen Jews are killed just for being Jewish, we commemorate them with the words ‘Hashem yikom damam,’ may God avenge their blood. This formulation absents us from the equation since it expresses that it is God’s responsibility, not ours, to seek ultimate justice. As humans, we are incapable of meting out true justice when a monstrous crime has been committed.” She explains that, although the Torah calls for a death sentence for some crimes, Jewish tradition teaches that death sentences should be very rare, if they are allowed at all. She writes that “a Jewish court is considered bloodthirsty if it allows the death penalty to be carried out [even] once every 70 years.”

Though recognizing that repentance is rare, Kissileff said nonetheless “[t]here is always a chance for redemption. Calling for the death penalty means there is no possibility for the shooter to repent, to change or to improve. I would rather not foreclose that possibility of change, slim as it may be, by putting someone to death.” She recounted the cases of white nationalists Derek Black, who renounced his hatred of Jews after being invited to Shabbat dinners by Jewish students at his college, and Arno Michaelis, a former skinhead leader who later co-authored a book on forgiveness with a man whose father was among the seven congregants murdered in a hate attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Referring to these examples, Kissileff said “[n]either [man] might have been expected to change their beliefs, and yet they have.”

Kissileff’s articles describe the legacy of those who were killed in the Pittsburgh attack and how the shooting has inspired others to become more involved in the synagogue and to learn more about their Jewish faith: “Creating more knowledge of what Judaism and Jewish values are, and encouraging more Jews to commit to them, is the most profound way to avenge their blood.” She writes that, “rather than seeking the shooter’s death,” a better response for Jews would be “strengthening other Jews and Jewish life in Pittsburgh and around the world. Doing so will mean that Jews, not forces of evil, have the ultimate victory.” She concludes: “The most important vengeance for the murder of 11 Jews or 6 million is for the Jewish people to live and the Torah to live, not for their killer to die.”

Two Cases Pit Native American Sovereignty Against U.S. Death Penalty

As federal prosecutors dropped the death penalty against a Navajo man accused of killing a police officer on Navajo land, the U.S. Supreme Court heard argument in a separate case on the status of a treaty establishing the borders of the Creek Nation reservation that could determine whether Oklahoma has jurisdiction to carry out the death penalty against a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) tribe. The two cases highlight issues of Native American tribal sovereignty with potentially profound implications for the administration of capital punishment under state and federal death penalty laws.

On November 27, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Carpenter v. Murphy, Oklahoma’s appeal of a lower federal court decision that overturned the conviction and death sentence of Patrick Murphy, a citizen of the Creek Nation, for a murder the federal court ruled was committed in Indian Country, on lands within the boundaries of the Creek Nation reservation established by treaty in 1866. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled in August 2017 that because the homicide with which Murphy was charged “was committed in Indian country, the Oklahoma state courts lacked jurisdiction to try him.” Under the federal Major Crimes Act, the court said, Murphy could be prosecuted by federal authorities, but not by the state. Because of tribal opposition to the death penalty, Murphy would not face capital prosecution under the act. Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief James Floyd hailed the Circuit court’s decision as “affirm[ing] the right of the Nation and all other Indian Nations to make and enforce their own laws within their own boundaries.”

In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that only Congress had authority to disestablish or diminish an Indian reservation. Congress has never explicitly disestablished the Creek reservation. However, Oklahoma appealed the court’s ruling, arguing that the admission of Oklahoma into the Union in 1907 superseded the treaty and disestablished the reservation. Arguing for Murphy, Ian Gershengorn told the Court that the tribe has never ceded authority over the lands and “for the last 40 years, … when the Creek Nation adopted a constitution in 1979, they asserted political jurisdiction to the extent of their 1900 boundaries.” The Court’s decision in the case could affect criminal prosecutions in an 11-county region of eastern Oklahoma.

In New Mexico, federal prosecutors on November 19 withdrew their notice of intent to seek the death penalty against Kirby Cleveland in the killing of a tribal police officer. In January 2018, U.S. attorneys announced they would capitally prosecute Cleveland, prompting opposition from the Navajo Nation, which holds the official position that “capital punishment is not an acceptable form of punishment.” Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch stated in a letter, “The death penalty is counter to the cultural beliefs and traditions of the Navajo People who value life and place a great emphasis on the restoration of harmony through restoration and individual attention.” The U.S. Attorney’s Office had argued that because the murder involved the death of a police officer, the tribe’s position was not binding on the federal government. The case was further complicated by the fact that the state of New Mexico abolished the death penalty in 2009, so a death-penalty prosecution was counter to the policy of the state in which the crime took place.

Defense Moves to Bar Death Penalty in New York Bike-Path Killings, Citing “Nakedly Political” Tweets

Defense attorneys for Sayfullo Saipov (pictured), the man accused of killing eight people by driving a truck onto a Manhattan bike path on October 31, 2017, have asked a New York federal district court to bar the U.S. government from seeking the death penalty against Saipov. Arguing that President Donald Trump has unconstitutionally injected “nakedly political considerations” into the Department of Justice's charging decision, Saipov’s lawyers on September 6, 2018, filed a motion before Judge Vincent Broderick to preclude federal prosecutors from pursuing the death penalty or, alternatively, “to appoint an independent prosecutor to decide whether the death penalty should be pursued” in the case. The defense filing cites several tweets in which the President directly called for Saipov’s execution and another in which Mr. Trump ridiculed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is ultimately responsible for deciding whether to seek any federal death sentence, for moving forward with two prosecutions that could cost Republicans seats in the U.S. Congress. In separate tweets shortly after the truck attack, Trump used all capital letters to demand the death penalty for Saipov, exclaiming “SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!” and “Should move fast. DEATH PENALTY!” In a later tweet, he referred to Saipov as a “degenerate animal.” The motion further alleges that President Trump “has recently tweeted that he expects non-case related political considerations to govern Attorney General Sessions’ charging decisions,” pointing to a tweet that “excoriated” Sessions for the indictments of “two very popular Republican Congressmen ... just ahead of the Mid-Terms.” Trump derisively tweeted: “Two easy wins now in doubt because there is not enough time. Good job, Jeff.” Saipov’s lawyers note that this tweet attack on Attorney General Sessions comes at the same time that the President’s personal attorney, Rudolph Giuliani, ‘confirmed that he and Trump have discussed Sessions’ possible removal.’” The motion argues that “[t]he pressure from Mr. Trump’s intemperate demands are simply too great for Attorney General Sessions or anyone else who works for President Trump to appropriately exercise the fact-based, independent decision-making process required” in capital cases. This, they argue, creates an unconstitutional risk that any decision to seek death will be—or appear to be—the product of “President Trump’s arbitrary, uninformed and emotional impulses ... and/or his insistence that the Justice Department’s charging decisions should be controlled by political calculations.” There is no death penalty in New York state. Federal prosecutors have not yet announced whether they intend to seek a death sentence in the case.

Prosecutors Withdraw Death Penalty, Agree to Guilty Pleas in Two High Profile Cases With Multiple Victims

State and federal prosecutors have agreed to withdraw the death penalty in exchange for guilty pleas by defendants charged with multiple killings in two unrelated high-profile murder cases. On May 4, Lake County, Indiana prosecutors dropped the death penalty against Darren Vann (pictured, left), who had killed seven women. On May 1, federal prosecutors announced they would not pursue the death penalty against Esteban Santiago (pictured right), who killed five people and wounded six others in a shooting rampage at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida in 2017. Military records reflect that Vann—a former Hawk Missile system operator who had earned a National Defense Service Medal—was prematurely discharged from the Marine Corps in 1993 for conduct described as "incongruent with Marine Corps’ expectations and standards." Vann had been capitally charged in the strangulation deaths of two women after having been released from prison in Texas in 2013 where he had served time for a rape conviction. County prosecutors agreed to withdraw the death penalty in exchange for his admission of guilt in their murders and the murders of five other women in an area of Gary, Indiana, frequented by sex workers and drug users. He was arrested in October 2014 after police found one victim's body in a motel bathtub. Vann told police he had killed six other women and later led authorities to their remains. Marvin Clinton, the longtime boyfriend of one of the victims and father of her child, called the death penalty "the easy way out" and said he preferred than Vann be sentenced to life without parole. "I want him to suffer," Clinton said. "These women will haunt him for the rest of his life.” Federal prosecutors reached a plea agreement that would avoid a protracted death-penalty trial for Santiago, a severely mentally ill Iraqi War veteran who suffers from auditory hallucinations and is being medicated for schizophrenia. Santiago opened fire in the Fort Lauderdale airport two months after having been released from a psychiatric hospitalization in Alaska. At that time, Santiago told local FBI agents in Anchorage that he was hearing voices and thought the government was controlling his mind. Local police then confiscated his handgun, but returned it to him weeks before the airport shooting. Santiago's lawyer, Assistant Federal Public Defender Eric Cohen, said Santiago has expressed remorse for the shooting. U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom has ordered Santiago to undergo a mental health evaluation to ensure he is legally competent to plead guilty and has scheduled a competency hearing for May 23.

Public Health Experts Criticize Trump’s Proposal to Seek Death Penalty for Drug Traffickers

Saying “the ultimate penalty has to be the death penalty,” President Donald Trump (pictured) announced on March 19 that he will direct the Department of Justice to seek the death penalty against drug traffickers. The proposal, included as part of the administration’s plan to address an opioid epidemic that has resulted in as many as 64,000 overdose deaths in 2016 alone, drew immediate criticism from public-health and criminal-justice experts. “We can’t execute our way out of this epidemic,” said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University. “To be talking about the death penalty sounds to me like a step backwards.” During the announcement, Trump acknowledged resistance to his death-penalty proposal, saying, “[m]aybe our country's not ready for that. It's possible, it’s possible that our country is not ready for that.” Since 1994, federal law has authorized the death penalty for “drug kingpins” who traffic in large quantities of drugs, even if no killing has occurred. But the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional for crimes against individuals in which no one is killed, and no prior administration—Republican or Democratic—has used the drug kingpin provision to seek the death penalty. Experts said the opioid crisis should be dealt with as a public-health issue and that harsher penalties for drug dealers would not fix the problem. Instead, they said, the administration should focus on addiction treatment. “The reality is, most people who are selling drugs are suffering from opioid addiction, and they sell drugs to support their own habit,” Dr. Kolodny said. “When I start hearing about the death penalty, it just seems to me we’re going in the wrong direction.” Dr. Guohua Li, professor of epidemiology and anesthesiology at Columbia University, agreed, saying “[c]riminal justice can play a complementary role in addressing the opioid crisis, but relying on the criminal justice system to address public health problems has proven unwise, costly, ineffective and often counterproductive.” Legal experts said the constitutionality of death sentences for drug dealers would likely be the subject of extensive litigation. “The death penalty is uncertain as a constitutionally permissible punishment without that connection to an intentional killing,” said Ohio State University law professor Doug Berman. Hamilton County, Ohio, Prosecuting Attorney Joe Deters, known for aggressively pursuing the death penalty, said “[t]o seek a death penalty case [simply for for drug trafficking] would be almost impossible. We'd have serious constitutional problems.” Former Harris County, Texas, homicide prosecutor Ted Wilson called the proposal “kind of over-the-top.” The death penalty for drug dealers "in my opinion just doesn’t fit,” he said. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) compared the President’s death-penalty proposal to past failed drug policies, saying, “We cannot arrest our way out of the opioid epidemic—we tried that and ended up with an even bigger addiction problem and the world’s largest prison population. The war on drugs didn’t work in the 80’s, and it won’t work now by reviving failed deterrence measures like the death penalty for drug dealers.  We must instead crack down on the over-production and over-prescribing of painkillers, and increase treatment for those suffering from addiction—both of which have bipartisan support in Congress." A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, released March 8, found that harsher penal sanctions had no measurable impact on drug use, drug overdose deaths, and drug arrests. The data, Pew said, “reinforce a large body of prior research that cast doubt on the theory that stiffer prison terms deter drug misuse, distribution, and other drug-law violations. The evidence strongly suggests that policymakers should pursue alternative strategies that research shows work better and cost less.”

Judge Finds New Jersey Federal Capital Defendant Intellectually Disabled, Bars Death Penalty

A New Jersey U.S. district court judge has barred federal prosecutors from seeking the death penalty against Farad Roland, finding that Roland is intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for capital punishment. After an eighteen-day evidentiary hearing featuring sixteen witnesses, Judge Esther Salas ruled on December 18 that Roland—accused of five killings in connection with a drug-trafficking gang—had "abundantly satisfied his burden of proving his intellectual disability by a preponderance of the evidence." In 2002 in Atkins v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court held that subjecting individuals with intellectual disability to the death penalty violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments. Judge Salas's ruling came almost exactly ten years after New Jersey abolished the death penalty, and ended efforts to obtain what would have been the first death sentence imposed in the state since abolition. The federal government may seek the death penalty in federal court under federal law, irrespective of whether the state in which the federal trial takes place itself authorizes capital punishment. The only other federal death-penalty case that has been tried in New Jersey ended with a life sentence in May 2007. Roland's was the third federal capital case in the last year in which a defendant was spared the death penalty because of intellectual disability. In June 2017, federal prosecutors announced they would not appeal a New York federal district court's determination that former death-row prisoner Ronell Wilson is intellectually disabled. Wilson had faced a capital resentencing hearing after his 2007 federal death sentence was overturned as a result of prosecutorial misconduct. In January 2017, President Barack Obama commuted the death sentence of Abelardo Arboleda Ortiz, in part because of evidence that Ortiz is intellectually disabled. Judge Salas found that Roland had satisfied all three prongs of the test to determine Intellectual Disability: "(1) intellectual-functioning deficits (indicated by an IQ score approximately two standard deviations below the mean—i.e., a score of roughly 70—adjusted for the standard error of measurement); (2) adaptive deficits (the inability to learn basic skills and adjust behavior to changing circumstances); and (3) the onset of these deficits while still a minor." Accordingly, she concluded, "Roland is ineligible for the death penalty under the Eighth Amendment and the FDPA [Federal Death Penalty Act]." In comments to NJ Advance Media, Roland's attorney, Richard Jasper, called Judge Salas's decision "a thorough, detailed, thoughtful 135 page opinion that speaks for itself."

USS Cole Lawyers Resign From Guantánamo Death-Penalty Defense, Say Government Spied on Client Communications

The U.S. Supreme Court has denied review of a petition filed by lawyers on behalf of Abd al Rahim al Nashiri—accused of orchestrating al-Qaida’s October 12, 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole warship off the coast of Yemen—challenging the legality of his death penalty trial before a Guantánamo Bay military commission. But in what has been described as "a stunning setback" to what would have been the first death-penalty trial held before the special military tribunals established in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the entire civilian legal team has resigned from the case amid allegations that the government was illicitly listening in on their legal meetings. The Miami Herald reported on October 13, just three days before the Supreme Court decision, that the Chief Defense Counsel for the Military Commissions Defense Organization, Brigadier General John Baker (pictured) had “found good cause” to permit Nashiri's defense team to withdraw from the case as a result of ethical concerns created by alleged government spying on privileged attorney-client meetings. In June 2017, Gen. Baker advised war court defense attorneys that he had lost confidence in the integrity of “all potential attorney-client meeting locations” at Guantánamo, saying that he was “not confident that the prohibition on improper monitoring of attorney-client meetings” at the detention center was being followed. Attorney Rick Kammen, who has defended Nashiri since 2008, alleges in the Supreme Court petition that his team discovered classified information contradicting government assurances that the facilities in which they met with Nashiri were not being improperly surveiled. In the past, the spying has included, among other things, "microphones hidden in smoke detectors." Because the information relating to the violation of the right to counsel is classified, the defense lawyers have been ordered by the judge in the case, Air Force Colonel Vance Spath, not to share the information with the public or their client. Although Brig. Gen. Baker has released Kammen from representing Nashiri, the case cannot proceed until another experienced death-penalty defender is brought onboard. Two other civilian defense attorneys who are Pentagon employees—Rosa Eliades and Mary Spears—also quit the case with permission from Baker but remain on his staff. The only member of Nashiri's defense team who remains on the case is Lieutenant Alaric Piette—a former Navy SEAL who has never tried a murder case. “I am certainly not qualified as learned [death-penalty] counsel,” Lt. Piette told the Miami Herald, which he says Nashiri “is entitled to and should have ... since the government is trying to kill him.” Kammen says the defense team is "angry about being placed in an ethically untenable position, disappointed in not being able to see the case through, and devastated to leave Mr. Nashiri, whom we genuinely like and who deserves a real chance for justice.” The pretrial proceedings at the Guantánamo Bay that were scheduled to begin on October 30th are expected to be delayed for months, until learned death-penalty counsel who has received Top Secret security clearance to review the evidence in the case is appointed.

Prosecutors Seeking Death Sentences for Aging Defendants Despite Taxpayer Cost, Likelihood of Dying Before Execution

Two cases in which prosecutors have elected to pursue the death penalty against aging or infirm defendants who will almost certainly never be executed have raised questions about the costs and benefits of capital charges and the arbitrary exercise of prosecutorial discretion. Federal prosecutors in Missouri are seeking the death penalty against 61-year-old Ulysses Jones Jr., a man with terminal renal disease, for the 2006 killing of another prisoner at a federal prison hospital. At the same time, Philadelphia's judicially-appointed interim district attorney, filling the unexpired term of a district attorney convicted of public corruption charges, is pursuing the death penalty against 64-year-old Robert Lark in the retrial of a 1979 murder. Lark won a new trial in 2014, seven years after Philadelphia prosecutors appealed a lower federal court ruling that they had unconstitutionally struck African Americans from serving as jurors in Lark's case because of their race. Jones is currently facing a capital sentencing hearing in the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri after having been convicted on October 4 of murdering 38-year-old Timothy Baker with a makeshift knife in January 2006 at the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri. Jones has been receiving dialysis for the last 30 years, and the medical center, known as Fed Med, houses the nation’s largest dialysis center. Two other prisoners, Wesley Paul Coonce Jr. and Charles Michael Hall, are on federal death row for another murder at Fed Med. Jones's lawyer, Thomas Carver, argues that the capital trial is senseless, both because Jones is already serving a life sentence for two unrelated robberies and murders, and because, if he is sentenced to death, he will likely die before his appeals process is complete, and almost certainly before an execution would be scheduled. "We're talking millions of dollars here," Carver said. Carver believes Jones—whom the defense says has significant intellectual and cognitive impairments—was not indicted until 2010 "because the government was hoping he would die.” In Lark's case, Interim Philadelphia District Attorney Kelley Hodge has decided to seek the death penalty even though Lark's appeals in his case, if he were sentenced to death, would not be completed before Lark was in his late-70s or his 80s, far beyond his expected survival on death row. Marc Bookman, a longtime Philadelphia public defender who now serves as Director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, called the decision to seek death, made "by a prosecutor chosen by Philadelphia judges rather than one chosen by the community[,] ... a needless step backward" for Philadelphia. Quoting Lawrence Krasner—who overwhelmingly won the Democratic nomination for Philadelphia district attorney after campaigning on a promise not to seek the death penalty and is heavily favored in the November general election—Bookman says, “We have to stop lighting money on fire.” Krasner has said that the death penalty “has cost Pennsylvania taxpayers over $1 billion, yet no one on Pennsylvania’s death row has been put to death involuntarily since 1962,” and his Republican opponent, Beth Grossman has publicly "wonder[ed] whether [the death penalty] is at this point even economically feasible.” In February 2015, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf declared a moratorium on executions, noting that Pennsylvania’s failing death-penalty system forced “the families and loved ones of victims to relive their tragedies” with each reversed death sentence. The only certainty in the current system, he said, “is that the process will be drawn out, expensive, and painful for all involved.”

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