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The Federal Death Penalty: A Primer

by | Jun 21, 2022 | Capital Murder

Currently exactly half the states in the United States have capital punishment laws on the books, including Florida. However, the Federal government also has provisions for the death penalty that supersede state laws on the subject. This is what you need to know about the Federal death penalty.


The recent history of the Federal death penalty begins in 1972, when the Supreme Court invalidated both federal and state capital punishment statutes in Furman v. Georgia, citing violations of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment. The ruling invalidated death sentences handed down but not yet carried out and prohibited sentencing a defendant to death going forward.


Four years later, the Supreme Court again took up the issue of capital punishment when it reviewed together the cases Gregg v. Georgia, Proffitt v. Florida, Jurek v. Texas, Woodson v. North Carolina, and Roberts v. Louisiana. Known collectively as the July 2 Cases, the Court said that, for the death penalty to meet Constitutional standards, it must


  • Provide objective criteria to direct and limit sentencing discretion, which would be subject to appellate review, and
  • allow the sentencer (either a judge or jury) to take into account the character and record of the defendant.


The next major change to the Federal death penalty came in 1988, when Congress enacted a statute modeled on several state statutes that comported with the 1972 ruling, making murder in the course of a drug trafficking conspiracy a capital crime.


Six years later, Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The new law made sixty more crimes punishable by execution, with all but three involving murder. In addition to the 57 murder offenses that became capital crimes, major drug trafficking, espionage, and treason became punishable by death as well.


The next major piece of Federal death penalty legislation came in 1996, when Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Prompted by the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City the year prior, the new law tightened deadlines for both state and federal inmates to file appeals, reduced evidentiary hearings, and restricted habeas corpus challenges to a single instance.


Between the passage of the 1996 act and 2020, the Federal government executed three prisoners, the first of which was Timothy McVeigh. One of two people convicted for the Oklahoma City bombings, McVeigh was the first Federal prisoner put to death since the Supreme Court ruled on the July 2 Cases in 1976. Eight days later Juan Raul Garza was executed for being convicted of three murders in connection with a drug-smuggling ring. Almost two years later Louis Jones Jr. was executed for a conviction of murder of a private in the US Army.


More recently, the Trump Administration saw the execution of thirteen federal prisoners, beginning with Daniel Lewis Lee in the first Federal execution in seventeen years. In 2021 the Federal government executed Lisa Marie Montgomery on a conviction of kidnapping and murder in 2004, making her the first woman to be executed by the federal government in 67 years and the fourth woman ever executed by the federal government.


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