SUPREME COURT Agrees to Hear Cases with Death Penalty Implications

On November 7, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear cases in two areas that could have broad implications for many defendants facing the death penalty.  In Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, No. 05-184, the Court will rule on the constitutionality of the military tribunals established by President Bush following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.  A U.S. District Court had halted the military trial of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, who had been captured in Afghanistan, because the trial violated domestic law and U.S. international treaty obligations.  This decision was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.  Hamdan is charged with conspiracy, murder and terrorism.  Under the current military tribunals, the government may seek the death penalty for certain offenses.  Chief Justice John Roberts has recused himself from the case because he was part of the panel of judges in the prior decision. (N.Y. Times, Nov. 8, 2005).

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Relatively Few Federal Death Sentences, But Proposed Legislation Would Make It Easier

The Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project reported that only 5 of the 22 juries that heard federal capital cases imposed death sentences in the past  year.  During John Ashcroft's term as Attorney General from 2001 to 2005, 18 of the 63 juries in capital cases returned death sentences.  Some members of Congress have proposed easing the rules for obtaining death sentences in federal cases, allowing the government to seek the death penalty repeatedly if the jury is not unanimous for either a life or death sentence.  Under current law, a non-unanimous sentencing jury results in a sentence less than death. 

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Patriot Act Reauthorization Could Impact Federal Death Penalty

Several provisions contained within the U.S. House of Representatives version of legislation to reauthorize the USA Patriot Act anti-terrorism law aim to dramatically transform the federal death penalty system by allowing smaller juries to decide on executions and giving prosecutors the ability to try again if the jury deadlocks on sentencing. The legislative changes, sponsored by Texas Congressman John Carter, would also triple the number of terrorism-related crimes eligible for the death penalty.

Carter's amendment, called the Terrorist Death Penalty Enhancement Act,  would add 41 crimes to the 20 terrorism-related offenses currently eligible for capital punishment. It would also make it easier for prosecutors to seek a capital conviction in cases where the defendant did not have the intent to kill. In addition, the provisions would allow a trial with fewer than 12 jurors if the court finds "good cause," with or without the agreement of the defense team. Lastly, it would give prosecutors the chance to retry cases if a jury is deadlocked over a death sentence. Currently in federal death penalty cases, a hung jury at sentencing automatically results in a life sentence, a system that is used in all but 5 of the 38 U.S. states that have capital punishment.

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RACE AND JURY SELECTION: Federal Judge Attempts to Seat a More Diverse Jury in Death Penalty Case

A federal judge in Boston presiding over the death penalty case of two black defendants has ordered a change in the process of summoning jurors in order to ensure a more diverse jury.  U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner wrote a 95-page opinion and noted that it would be "profoundly troubling" if the defendants, Darryl Green and Branden Morris, were to face an all-white jury in a trial for their lives.  Gertner cited studies that showed that wealthier geographic areas keep more accurate jury rolls and hence have a higher response rate from summoning juries.  Poorer areas, where more minorities live, require a follow-up process when summonses are returned unanswered in order to reach the intended person.

The prosecution has challenged the judge's order and the District Court's Chief Judge has appointed a committee of 5 judges, including Gertner, to review the "profound issues" raised.  The Chief Judge has submitted his own brief to the U.S. Court of Appeals that is considering the prosecution's challenge. 

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NEW VOICES: Victim's Family Opposes Federal Death Sentence

The parents and three children of Louisiana murder victim Kim Groves have asked the federal government to forgo seeking the death penalty for co-defendants Paul Hardy and Len Davis.  In a letter to prosecutors, the Groves family urged U.S attorneys to halt proceedings that  might lead to death sentences in rehearings for both defendants.

"Executing these two men will not bring Kim Groves back to life. It will not ease the deep sorrow and loss that her family has and will continue to experience as a result of her death...Perversely, it appears that he (Davis) has enjoyed the attention and notoriety which his vulnerability to the death penalty has provided. The family believes the death penalty would in fact be the lesser of the punishments and that the finality and duration of a life sentence would be much more difficult and severe to Mr. Davis, in particular, than death," the letter stated.

The letter, which was also addressed to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, was entered into the court record last week.   The presiding judge ruled that if prosecutors have family members testifying about the facts of the crime, the letter may be used on Davis' behalf. 

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Federal Death Penalty in Non-Death Penalty States

The federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988 with a limited statute for murders in the course of a drug conspiracy. It was expanded to 60 offenses in 1994 and included crimes such as carjacking and drive-by shootings if a death results. During the Clinton administration, no one from a non-death penalty state was sentenced to death. Since 2000, there have been at least 5 individuals in non-death states who have received death sentences: 2 in Iowa (Dustin Honken and Angela Johnson), 1 in Massachusetts (Gary Sampson), 1 in Michigan (Marvin Gabrion), and most recently, 1 in Vermont (Donald Fell). A total of 40 people are now under a federal death sentence (in some cases, a judge has not formally imposed the sentence).

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Puerto Ricans Again Reject Federal Death Sentence

Two Puerto Rican defendants were given life sentences by the same jury that had convicted them of murder in the course of an armored truck robbery that occurred in 2002.  Puerto Rico has not used the death penalty for almost 80 years and forbids the practice in its constitution.  However, the U.S. federal death penalty applies to the Commonwealth.

Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila said that the jury acted in accordance with Puerto Rican tradition, which "loathes and is against the death penalty." Federal prosecutors said the federal death penalty should apply because the defendants, Hernando Medina Villegas and Lorenzo Catalan Roman, interefered with interstate commerce.  Puerto Rico has not had an execution since 1927. 

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Eric Rudolph Pleads Guilty to Terrorist Bombings in Exchange for Life Without Parole Sentences

In separate plea agreements with the federal government and Georgia prosecutors, Eric Rudolph admitted killing two people and injuring 150 others by carrying out a series bombings at a gay nightclub, abortion clinics, and the 1996 Olympics, and will serve four consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. Prosecutors spared Rudolph from execution in exchange for his guilty pleas and his revealing the location of about 250 pounds of dynamite he had hidden in the North Carolina mountains. Prior to his capture in 2003, Rudolph spent over five years hiding from authorities in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina.

"The many victims of Eric Rudolph's terrorist attacks in Atlanta and Birmingham can rest assured that Rudolph will spend the rest of his life behind bars. The best interests of justice are served by resolution of this case and by the skillful operation that secured the dangerous explosives buried in North Carolina," said U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales. U.S. Attorney David E. Nahmias later added, "There will be no further delays in obtaining justice for the public and the many victims of his terrorist activity."

(Washington Post, April 6, 2005 and New York Times, April 12, 2005). 

See Life Without Parole; also Federal Death Penalty.

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Opposition to the Death Penalty Mounts in Puerto Rico

As two men convicted of capital murder under the federal death penalty statute await their sentencing on April 11, Puerto Rican Governor Anibal Acevedo and the Association of American Jurists, a non-governmental organization acting as a consultant at the United Nations, protested the use of the death penalty in Puerto Rico. Though Puerto Rico's Constitution prohibits the death penalty and its residents have consistently voiced strong opposition to it, residents who commit a federal capital crime can be sentenced to die.  Opposition to this practice is pervasive, crossing political and religious lines. 

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