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Capital Punishment at the Federal Level

Like many U.S. states, the federal government has employed capital punishment for certain federal offenses, like killing a government official, kidnapping that results in death, running a large-scale drug enterprise, and treason.

When the Supreme Court struck down state death penalty statutes in Furman v. Georgia in 1972, the federal death penalty statutes suffered from the same problems as the state statutes; they violated the eighth and fourteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution. As a result, death sentences under the old federal death penalty statutes have not been upheld.

Read on to learn more about capital punishment at the federal level.

Expansion of Federal Death Penalty Laws

In 1988, a new federal death penalty law was enacted for murder in the course of a drug-trafficking conspiracy. The statute was modeled on the modern statutes that had comported to the requirements laid out by the Supreme Court.

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 argued that this streamlining would speed up the death penalty process and significantly reduce its cost. Others feared that quicker, more limited federal review may increase the risk of executing innocent defendants. Despite these concerns, only three federal prisoners were executed over the course of two decades.

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. More recently, the constitutionality of the federal death penalty was challenged and upheld in a 2019 Michigan case.

Many states have also enacted restrictions on the death penalty, nearly halting their executions; only ten states have executed individuals since 2018, and over half of the states in the U.S. have banned capital punishment, relying instead on life sentences.

Federal Capital Punishment Statistics

When he was executed on June 11, 2001, Timothy McVeigh—the man responsible for the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing— 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. Since then, the federal government has executed 15 individuals: two more shortly after McVeigh, ten in 2020, and three in 2021.

On a global level, the U.S. is one of the few developed Western countries to still utilize capital punishment. The European Union forbids the use of capital punishment, and the United Nations has taken steps toward a global moratorium on the death penalty.

Learn More About Capital Punishment at the Federal Level From an 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 is resolved. But if they have been specifically charged with a capital offense, you'll want an experienced attorney immediately. Fortunately, you can contact a skilled criminal defense attorney near you who can help fight the charges and craft the best defense for your particular situation.

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