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America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

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With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

House votes to expand death penalty for police killings

The House passed legislation on Thursday that would make the murder of a law enforcement officer punishable by death.

Approved by a 271-143 vote, the measure expands the aggravating factors when a jury considers a death sentence in federal cases.

48 Democrats voted with all but 4 Republicans in favor of the legislation, which was timed for a vote during National Police Week.

Federal law outlines 16 factors juries must consider when debating whether the death penalty is justified, such as whether the victim was a "high public official" or the accused committed the crime in a particularly cruel way.

Killing a federal law enforcement officer is already considered a factor for the death penalty under current law. The bill approved by the House would extend that to state and local police officers and first responders.

All 50 states also have laws increasing penalties for crimes against law enforcement.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) acknowledged the proposed change would likely have limited applicability given that most homicide cases are considered by state courts and that it may be rare for a law enforcement killing to be involved in a federal offense.

But bill's proponents primarily wanted to send a deterrence message.

"Getting this bill signed into law will protect those who serve our communities and send a clear message: targeting or killing our first responders will not be tolerated," said Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.), the bill's author.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) came out against the bill, arguing in a letter to House Judiciary Committee leaders that "expanding the number of aggravating factors that would subject a person to the death penalty is unnecessary and duplicative; counterproductive to improving law enforcement and community relations; and unlikely to prevent future violence against police."

Civil rights groups said the bill falls in line with President Trump's desire to get tough on crime and enforce "law and order," but would ultimately be counterproductive.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions directed federal prosecutors last week to charge and pursue the "most serious, readily provable offense" in criminal cases. The move prompted outcry from Democrats and libertarians such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who warned it would unnecessarily increase the prison population.

An Obama-era order in 2013 under then-Attorney General Eric Holder instructed prosecutors to avoid mandatory minimums in some drug-related cases.

Todd Cox, the NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund policy director, wrote in a Medium post this week that Congress should instead consider proposals that require police departments to provide anti-bias and de-escalation training.

"Unfortunately, Congress has chosen to spend this week considering unnecessary and redundant legislation that will only widen the gap between communities and law enforcement, without any added security benefit," Cox wrote.

Democrats, who largely already oppose the death penalty, said it unnecessarily expanded the statute, particularly for if a defendant only attempted to kill a law enforcement officer.

"I'm not aware that we have in the law anywhere a death penalty for an attempted crime,' said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee. "The attempted terrible act certainly should be punished. But not as severely as the accomplishment of the terrible act."

The House is expected to consider another police-themed bill on Friday that would allow probation officers to arrest people without warrants if they forcibly assault or obstruct them during their official duties.

Source: thehill.com, May 19, 2017

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