Federal Death Penalty

NEW VOICES: Federal Judge Underscores the "Heavy Price" of the Death Penalty

In a recent interview, Judge Michael A. Ponsor, who presided over the first federal death penalty trial in Massachusetts in over 50 years, warned that the death penalty comes with a "heavy price" - the risk of executing innocent people: "A legal regime permitting capital punishment comes with a fairly heavy price....where there’s a death penalty innocent people will die. Sooner or later—we hope not too often—someone who didn’t commit the crime will be executed." In 2001, Judge Ponsor oversaw the capital trial of Kristen Gilbert, a nurse who was charged with killing some of her patients. Gilbert was ultimately found guilty and sentenced to life without parole. The judge said the trial made him question the whole process of death sentencing: "The most profound realization I took from Gilbert was that human beings getting together to decide whether someone should be executed, even when they are supervised by a judge, will make mistakes."

NEW VOICES: Attorney General Criticizes Secrecy in Lethal Injections

On July 31, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke about the death penalty review underway at the Department of Justice and the need for greater transparency in lethal injection methods. Holder said he was "greatly troubled" by the recent botched executions, adding that states should provide more information about the drugs they plan to use. He said, "[F]or the state to exercise that greatest of all powers, to end a human life, it seems to me... that transparency would be a good thing, and to share the information about what chemicals are being used, what drugs are being used. And it would seem to me that would be a better way to do this." He added, "[T]here is an obligation, it seems to me, on the part of the executive branch that’s charged with that responsibility to be forthcoming about the mechanisms, the means by which this most serious of executive branch actions can be carried out." On the progress of the death penalty review ordered by President Obama, Holder said, "We have people from our Civil Rights Division, our Criminal Division, various other components within the department looking at our protocol and taking into account what we have seen happen in the states recently, as we try to work our way through how the federal government is going to impose the death penalty."

Department of Justice Review of State Death Penalty Protocols Underway

Following the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma in April, President Obama ordered the Justice Department to review death penalty procedures in the states. Though a timeline for the study has not been released, the department has already reached out to at least one organization, the Constitution Project, which proposed several reforms in its recent report on the death penalty, including the establishing of an office at the Justice Department  to review innocence claims from death row prisoners. The group alos asked for more information about federal death penalty cases, given evidence of racial disparity, and the development of “federal standards and procedures” for accrediting forensic laboratories.  

President Obama Orders Review of Death Penalty

President Obama has ordered Attorney General Eric Holder to review the application of the death penalty in the U.S. following the failed execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma on April 29. The President noted concerns about innocence and racial bias: “In the application of the death penalty in this country, we have seen significant problems — racial bias, uneven application of the death penalty, you know, situations in which there were individuals on death row who later on were discovered to have been innocent because of exculpatory evidence. And all these, I think, do raise significant questions about how the death penalty is being applied.” The Department of Justice was already reviewing federal execution protocols. Brian Fallon, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said, “At the president’s direction, the department will expand this review to include a survey of state-level protocols and related policy issues.” The President called the events in Oklahoma, in which the inmate regained consciousness and apprarently suffered before dying of a heart attack, "deeply disturbing."

NEW VOICES: All Democratic Candidates for Massachusetts Governor Oppose Death Penalty for Tsarnaev

In a debate held by the Boston Globe, all five Democratic candidates for governor of Massachusetts said they oppose the death penalty for accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Candidate Don Berwick said, "The death penalty has no place in our jurisprudence." Juliette Kayyem, in an earlier statement on her Facebook page, said, "I have, based on my principles and on my work in death penalty appeals litigation in Alabama, always opposed the death penalty." The other candidates in agreement were Martha Coakley, Steve Grossman, and Joe Avellone. The current governor, Deval Patrick, has also said, "I am philosophically opposed to the death penalty." Earlier, the Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker said he supports the decision to seek the death penalty against Tsarnaev.

Resources on the Federal Death Penalty and Boston Marathon Case

On January 30 U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the government would seek the death penalty in the federal prosecution of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. DPIC has a number of resources about the federal death penalty, including a list of federal death row inmates with descriptions of their cases, information about crimes eligible for the federal death penalty, a breakdown of outcomes in federal capital cases, and studies related to such issues as costs and racial disparities. We have also compiled legal documents related to the Tsarnaev case, including the recent notice of intent to seek the death penalty, the indictment, and initial charging document

Boston Bar Association Announces Opposition to Use of Federal Death Penalty

On January 7, the Boston Bar Association, representing more than 10,000 lawyers, released a statement opposing the use of the federal death penalty. The Association already had a longstanding position against the death penalty in state cases. Paul T. Dacier (pictured), the President of the Boston Bar, said, "Without equivocation, the death penalty has no place in the fair administration of justice and makes no sense on a practical level." The organization's new stance was based on a review of the death penalty by a working group chaired by retired Superior Court Judge Margaret Hinkle and Martin Murphy, a partner at Foley Hoag LLP. Murphy said, "The research we conducted confirms that death penalty prosecutions, including federal death penalty cases, are more expensive and time consuming, more subject to prolonged delays, and unlikely to produce a different result than where the prosecution seeks life without parole." The study also raised concerns about the "inevitability of error" in criminal cases.

COSTS: "Pursuing Death Penalty is Big Waste of Resources"

In a recent op-ed in the Albuquerque Journal, the president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association discussed the high costs of the federal death penalty. In particular, Barbara Mandel detailed the expenses involved in the recent federal trial of John McCluskey. He was sentenced to life without parole, an outcome that Mandel wrote, "occurred years and at least a million dollars later than it should have.” According to the op-ed, McCluskey had been willing to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence less than death early on, and, in February 2013, a senior judge offered to mediate the case. Although then-U.S. Attorney Kenneth Gonzalez rejected the offer, he did acknowledge that federal capital prosecutions inflict logistical and financial burdens on the entire federal system.

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