Department of Justice Renews the Federal Death Penalty

In July 2019, the Justice Department announced that the federal government will resume carrying out the death penalty in the federal criminal justice system. This marks the first time the federal government will conduct executions in 16 years.

Prior to the announcement, the last execution of a federal inmate took place in 2001, when the federal government executed Oklahoma City federal building bomber Timothy McVeigh. 

In past years, some of the controversy surrounding the federal death penalty has stemmed from the manner of execution, which involved three different drugs used in a lethal injection. In response to this problem, Attorney General William Barr ordered the Bureau of Prisons to switch from a three-drug cocktail to a single drug for the injection. 

After the Justice Department made its announcement, the Bureau of Prisons scheduled the executions of five individuals currently on Death Row in federal prison. If the executions move forward, they will take place in December 2019 and January 2020.

The Justice Department stated that all five prisoners were convicted of murdering children and that all five have exhausted their available appeals. 

Potential Problems with the Death Penalty

Opponents of the death penalty point out that exonerations of people on Death Row have occurred. When someone is executed, however, an exoneration after the fact is of no help to them.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), over 165 Death Row inmates have been exonerated since 1973. Data from the DPIC also shows that 13 of these exonerations involved inmates in Texas, which has the third-highest rate of exonerations. Only Illinois and Florida have more exonerations, with 21 and 29, respectively. 

The United States is one of just 54 countries in the world to use the death penalty. Currently, 29 states, including Texas, have the death penalty. In recent years, the number of states that impose the death penalty has declined. Wisconsin was the first state to abolish the death penalty in 1853. The most recent states to do away with capital punishment include Delaware, Maryland, Illinois, and Connecticut.

Groups opposed to the death penalty state that capital punishment is unconstitutional. Additionally, they point out that a disproportionate number of individuals sentenced to death are people of color. 

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), an individual’s race is a critical factor in determining the likelihood of receiving the death penalty. The ACLU states that 43 percent of executions since 1976 have involved a person of color. The number increases to 55 percent among individuals currently sitting on Death Row. Additionally, a person of color is more likely to be sentenced to death if their victim was white. 

Supporters of the death penalty say that it’s a deterrent for others to commit crimes, and that capital punishment lessens an already overly burdened prison system. However, opponents of the death penalty state that executions are costlier than covering the cost of an individual’s lifetime imprisonment. 

A Brief History of the Death Penalty

The death penalty has something of a turbulent history in the United States. In colonial times, the death penalty was carried out somewhat regularly. Scholars believe the first recorded instance of the death penalty occurred in Jamestown in 1608 when a convicted spy was executed by firing squad. 

Executions in the United States continued throughout the 1600s and 1700s and persisted after the Revolutionary War. However, several of the Founding Fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, believed the death penalty was ineffective as a deterrent to crime. In 1794, Pennsylvania became the first state to restrict the death penalty by limiting it to first-degree murder. 

Throughout the 1800s, many states shifted away from capital punishment as the prison system expanded. States also stopped certain types of executions, such as hangings. In 1846, Michigan abolished capital punishment except in cases of treason.

Historians believe that public opinion about the death penalty was influenced by World War II, in which so many people around the world perished. After the war, fewer Americans supported the death penalty. 

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court in Furman v. Georgia ruled that capital punishment is unconstitutional. This had the effect of ending all executions in the United States at both the federal and state levels. 

However, the Court reversed itself in 1976, holding in Gregg v. Georgia that executions did not violate the constitution. Despite the ruling, no state would carry out an execution for another six years. The next execution occurred in 1982 when Texas became the first state to use lethal injection as a manner of execution. 

Although the modern federal death penalty has been in place since 1988, it has been used rarely. While the federal government seems set to resume carrying out executions, opponents have stated they will challenge the government in court.  

If you have been charged with a violent crime, it’s in your best interest to speak with a reputable criminal defense lawyer in Texas as soon as possible. Penalties for violent crimes vary based on the nature and degree of the crime. Contact Attorney John Helms in Dallas to have an attorney willing to fight for your freedom and future. 

Dallas Criminal Defense Lawyer Attorney John Helms

Tel: (214) 666-8010