Patriot Act Reauthorization Could Impact Federal Death Penalty
Several provisions contained within the U.S. House of Representatives version of legislation to reauthorize the USA Patriot Act anti-terrorism law aim to dramatically transform the federal death penalty system by allowing smaller juries to decide on executions and giving prosecutors the ability to try again if the jury deadlocks on sentencing. The legislative changes, sponsored by Texas Congressman John Carter, would also triple the number of terrorism-related crimes eligible for the death penalty.
Carter's amendment, called the Terrorist Death Penalty Enhancement Act, would add 41 crimes to the 20 terrorism-related offenses currently eligible for capital punishment. It would also make it easier for prosecutors to seek a capital conviction in cases where the defendant did not have the intent to kill. In addition, the provisions would allow a trial with fewer than 12 jurors if the court finds "good cause," with or without the agreement of the defense team. Lastly, it would give prosecutors the chance to retry cases if a jury is deadlocked over a death sentence. Currently in federal death penalty cases, a hung jury at sentencing automatically results in a life sentence, a system that is used in all but 5 of the 38 U.S. states that have capital punishment.
Carter's provisions are not included in the Senate version of the USA Patriot Act reauthorization bill, and Republican Senate Judiciary Committee staff advisors have noted that the provisions are "one of several concerns" the committee has with the House version of the bill. In 2004, these same proposed changes to the federal death penalty law were placed in another House bill, but were taken out during conference negotiations with the Senate.
Critics of Carter's measure say the new provisions could put innocent lives at risk by removing important judicial safeguards. David Bruck, a death penalty expert at Washington and Lee University's law school, added, "The chances are that if a jury disagrees the first time, they'll disagree the next time and the next time, no matter how much time and how many millions of dollars you waste on it. If you can't get a unanimous jury to decide that a particular case is one of the worst of the worst, that tells you something."
(Washington Post, October 26, 2005) See Recent Legislative Activity and Federal Death Penalty.