Federal death penalty cases are exceedingly rare, but prosecutors are already exploring the possibility of seeking execution for a military veteran who flew from Alaska to Fort Lauderdale to gun down nearly a dozen airport travelers.
For federal prosecutors, the contemplated capital case against 26-year-old Esteban Santiago won’t be so much a whodunit — after all, he surrendered immediately after the deadly attack at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
Rather, they will have to prove the former Army reservist premeditated the violent assault — and disprove the defendant’s likely insanity defense that he didn’t know right from wrong when he opened fire in a baggage claim area last Friday.
The decision to pursue the death penalty against Santiago, accused of killing five people and injuring six others, carries such gravity that it must be made by the U.S. Attorney General, with significant input from the U.S. Attorney’s Office as well as the defendant’s lawyers in South Florida.
Prosecutors will be weighing the pros and cons, deciding whether to put a federal grand jury on notice of their plans to pursue the death penalty when it considers an indictment before Santiago’s arraignment on Jan. 23.
“There just aren’t that many murder cases that lend themselves to the federal system and so almost all of them go to the state,” said Miami defense lawyer Allan Kaiser, who worked as a federal prosecutor in South Florida for 16 years. “And as rare as these cases are, you can’t just jump at the prospect of seeking a death penalty.”
Federal executions rare
Even if Santiago were convicted and sentenced to die, an execution could be unlikely.
The U.S. government, using lethal injection, has only executed three inmates since the federal death penalty was brought back in 1988.
The last execution came in 2003, when Gulf War veteran Louis Jones was put to death for raping and murdering a teenage Army recruit in Texas. The feds earlier executed Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, and Juan Raul Garza, a drug trafficker who murdered three rivals in Texas.
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Source: Miami Herald, David Ovalle, Jay Weaver, January 12, 2017
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