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In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning

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To cope with his dread, John Kitzhaber opened his leather-bound journal and began to write.
It was a little past 9 on the morning of Nov. 22, 2011. Gary Haugen had dropped his appeals. A Marion County judge had signed the murderer's death warrant, leaving Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, to decide Haugen's fate. The 49-year-old would soon die by lethal injection if the governor didn't intervene.
Kitzhaber was exhausted, having been unable to sleep the night before, but he needed to call the families of Haugen's victims.
"I know my decision will delay the closure they need and deserve," he wrote.
The son of University of Oregon English professors, Kitzhaber began writing each day in his journal in the early 1970s. The practice helped him organize his thoughts and, on that particular morning, gather his courage.
Kitzhaber first dialed the widow of David Polin, an inmate Haugen beat and stabbed to death in 2003 while already serving a life sentence fo…

U.S. to Seek Death Penalty More Often for Violent Crimes

Jeff Sessions, left, and Donald Trump
Attorney General Jeff Sessions authorizes federal prosecutors to seek capital punishment in two murder cases and is said to be weighing it in others, including Manhattan terror attack

The Justice Department has agreed to seek the federal death penalty in at least two murder cases, in what officials say is the first sign of a heightened effort under Attorney General Jeff Sessions to use capital punishment to further crack down on violent crime.

In a decision made public Monday, Mr. Sessions authorized federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty against Billy Arnold, who is charged with killing two rival gang members in Detroit.

The decision followed the first death-penalty authorization under Mr. Sessions, made public Dec. 19, when he cleared prosecutors in Orlando to seek a death sentence against Jarvis Wayne Madison, who is charged with fatally shooting his estranged wife in 2016.

The Justice Department is also considering seeking death sentences against Sayfullo Saipov, accused of killing eight people in November by driving a truck onto a Manhattan bike lane, and against two defendants in the 2016 slaying of two teenage girls by MS-13 gang members on Long Island, outside of New York City, according to people familiar with the deliberations.

Mr. Sessions views the death penalty as a “valuable tool in the tool belt,” according to a senior Justice Department official. The official said the death penalty isn’t only a deterrent, but also a “punishment for the most heinous crimes prohibited under federal law.”

The Justice Department under President Donald Trump expects to authorize more death penalty cases than the previous administration did, the official said.

In 2017, state and federal juries handed down 39 death sentences, the second lowest since 1972, according to a report from the Death Penalty Information Center. Eight states carried out 23 executions last year, the second lowest total since the early 1990s, the report said.

The last federal execution was in 2003. Since 1963, three federal defendants have been executed. The federal government has secured 25 death sentences since 2007, down from 45 death sentences between 1996 and 2006.

Public support for capital punishment has fallen. A Gallup poll from October found 55% of American adults favor the death penalty for convicted murderers, the lowest level in 45 years.

Only 2% of death-penalty cases are sentenced in federal court. Several types of murder cases fall under federal jurisdiction, including those involving drug trafficking, racketeering or—in Mr. Madison’s case—interstate domestic violence and interstate stalking.

The Obama administration sought the federal death penalty in at least four dozen cases, fewer than the Bush administration, according to the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel, a federally funded program to assist death penalty lawyers. The cases authorized under the previous administration included ones involving terrorism, the killing of children or law-enforcement officers, and murders by prisoners already serving life sentences.

But in recent years, a Justice Department review of the drugs used to execute prisoners prompted an effective moratorium on federal executions.

Mr. Sessions appears to be seeking the death penalty against a broader set of violent crimes. Former Justice Department officials under President Barack Obama said they typically wouldn’t have authorized capital punishment in a case like Mr. Arnold’s, which involves gang-on-gang violence.

Murder cases with “victims who were themselves involved in criminal activity” are the ones where death penalty decisions tend to fluctuate by administration, said David Bitkower, a former Justice Department official under Mr. Obama who prosecuted two death-penalty gang cases.

Eric Holder, who served as attorney general from 2009 to 2015, personally opposed the death penalty. Loretta Lynch, Mr. Holder’s successor, called capital punishment “an effective penalty” at her confirmation hearing.

Mr. Sessions has put combating violent crime at the center of his agenda, encouraging prosecutors to pursue longer prison sentences and approving the hiring of dozens of new violent-crimes prosecutors.

The moves come as the death penalty on the state and federal level has been in decline. State executions are hovering near 26-year lows, partly due to dwindling supplies of lethal drugs and growing legal scrutiny from courts.

Mr. Trump has weighed in, tweeting after the Manhattan attack about Mr. Saipov: “SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!” Mr. Saipov has pleaded not guilty.

Former prosecutors say an increase in death-penalty cases could be time-consuming and expensive for both government and defense lawyers. Appeals in death penalty cases can take decades.

In the Orlando case, Mr. Madison is accused of kidnapping his estranged wife while she was jogging after she had escaped his previous attempt to hold her captive. After law-enforcement officials found him, he said he shot her to death and buried her in the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, the criminal complaint said.

Mr. Madison has pleaded not guilty. His lawyers didn’t respond to a request for comment.

In the Detroit case, prosecutors say Mr. Arnold belonged to the Seven Mile Bloods gang, which trafficked in cocaine, heroin and other drugs. During a war with other gangs, Mr. Arnold allegedly committed two murders in 2014 and 2015.

At a September 2017 court hearing, the prosecutor handling Mr. Arnold’s case said it was “unlikely the death penalty will be sought against Mr. Arnold,” citing his communications with the Justice Department and “reading the tea leaves.”

Mr. Arnold has pleaded not guilty. Lawyers for Mr. Arnold declined to comment.

The federal death-penalty process begins locally. In a case with “death-eligible” charges, the U.S. attorney in that district makes a recommendation for or against the death penalty. The final decision is up to the attorney general, who has the authority to override the local U.S. attorney’s recommendation.

An authorization doesn’t guarantee the defendant will get the death penalty. Prosecutors still have to secure a conviction at trial and persuade a jury to vote for a death sentence.

There are 61 prisoners on federal death row, compared with more than 2,800 in the states.

Prisoners recently added to federal death row include Dylann Roof, who killed nine black church worshipers in 2015 in Charleston, S.C., and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who carried out the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing that killed three people and wounded more than 260.

The most recent report from Amnesty International on global death sentences showed the U.S. executed the seventh most number of people in 2016 with 20 executions, behind nations like China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, Nicole Hong, Aruna Viswanatha, January 9, 2018


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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning