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Capital Punishment at the Federal Level

Capital punishment (also known as the death penalty) refers to crimes that are punishable by death. Like many U.S. states, the federal government has employed capital punishment for certain federal offenses, such as killing a government official, kidnapping that results in death, running a large-scale drug enterprise, and treason.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down state death penalty statutes in Furman v. Georgia in 1972. The Court found that death penalty cases violated the Eighth and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution when applied in an arbitrary or discriminatory manner.

This only resulted in a moratorium (temporary ban) on death sentences under the old federal death penalty statutes. But four years later, Gregg v. Georgia renewed the possibility of a death sentence. The article below explores capital punishment in federal criminal law, its expansion, and statistics related to federal executions.

Expansion of Federal Death Penalty Laws

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a federal death penalty law called the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. The new statute included murder in the course of a continuing criminal enterprise such as a drug-trafficking conspiracy. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which expanded the federal death penalty to 60 crimes.

Two years later, in response to the Oklahoma City bombing of a federal building, Clinton signed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. The AEDPA, which affects both state and federal prisoners, restricts review in federal courts by:

Supporters argued the act would speed up the death penalty process and reduce costs. Opponents feared an increase in executions of innocent defendants as a result of limited federal review.

Until November 2020, lethal injection was the sole method of execution approved for use by the federal government. New regulations expanded the execution methods to those authorized by the state imposing the federal death sentence. This includes execution by the following methods:

  • Electric chair
  • Firing squad
  • Hydrogen cyanide gas
  • Nitrogen hypoxia

On July 1, 2021, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland imposed a moratorium on federal executions shortly after the implementation of these regulations. Garland cited a need to review, “among other things, the risk of pain and suffering associated" with new protocols for administering lethal injections.

Death Penalty Throughout the Individual States

Although the U.S. 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. Additionally, under Roper v. Simmons in 2005, the Court found the imposition of the death penalty on youth who were under the age of 18 at the time of the capital offense a direct violation of the Eighth Amendment.

The Court recognized the particular vulnerability of these two groups and their placement on death row to be a cruel and unusual punishment. Instead, upon conviction, members of these two groups face life imprisonment.

In 2006, with Kansas v. Marsh, the Court further clarified that states can impose the death penalty, even in situations where the jury finds the aggravating and mitigating factors of equal weight.

About half of the states allow for capital punishment under state law. Over half of the states in the U.S. have banned capital punishment, relying instead on life sentences. The following states allow for the death penalty based on statutes, yet governors have put in place moratoriums, effectively halting executions:

  • California
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania

For death row inmates, the moratorium grants them a stay of execution. However, this is only a temporary suspension. These jurisdictions must rely on their legislators or ballot initiatives to enact permanent changes.

Federal Capital Punishment Statistics

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 died by lethal injection at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Between 1988 and 2019, only three federal prisoners were executed: McVeigh and two shortly afterward. Between July 2020 and January 2021, however, 13 federal prisoners were executed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Out of those 16 federal executions in the 21st century, six happened in Texas.

On a global level, the U.S. is one of the few developed Western countries that still utilizes capital punishment. The European Union forbids the use of capital punishment. Additionally, 125 United Nations member states voted in 2022 to adopt a resolution supporting 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 charged with a capital case, such as first-degree murder, contact an experienced attorney. This type of crime is punishable by death in many states. A skilled criminal defense attorney near you can review the facts of the case, investigate mitigating factors, or negotiate a plea bargain.

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