How about a federal-only death penalty?

Curtis Flowers at trial

Doug Berman is a law professor, sentencing expert and ardent blogger.  He could be described as a pragmatic progressive who wants to reform the criminal justice system but advocates policy proposals with a real chance of being implemented.  Berman notes that most people have moral problems with the death penalty but still want it available for “the worst of the worst”.  One solution is to restrict the ultimate penalty to the federal system and take it out of the hands of states courts altogether.

Unlike Berman, I am not a death penalty agnostic.  When I think of the death penalty I immediately envision Curtis Flowers, a demonstrably innocent man locked away in solitary confinement in Mississippi’s Parchman prison.  If the conviction in his record-setting sixth trial fails to hold (as is likely) and there is no way to retry Flowers at the state level without punting on the death penalty, District Attorney Doug Evans would have a dilemma on his hands.  The investigation of this case was so flawed, and the “evidence” presented to six juries has been so shamelessly manufactured that it would never withstand federal scrutiny.

Prosecutor Doug Evans’ intimate ties to the proudly racist Council of Conservative Citizens provides a partial explanation for his decision to build a case around the perjured testimony of a lying opportunist who is in federal prison for tax fraud using threats and the false promise of a $30,000 reward.  This case would disintegrate in minutes if it was handed to a competent federal prosecutor and the same could be said for dozens of other weak cases involving black defendants and racially biased prosecutors that have been tried before predominantly white juries in little towns like Winona, Mississippi.

Here’s Berman’s argument:

Does Boston bombing provide still more support for my federal-only death penalty perspective?

As long-time readers know, I like to describe myself a “death-penalty agnostic” concerning the theoretical and empirical arguments that traditionally surround the the criminal punishment of death.  But while I have long been uncertain about the “meta” arguments for and against capital punishment, as a matter of modern US policy and procedures I have a firm and distinctive view: given (1) persistent public/democratic support for death as a possible punishment for the “worst of the worst,” and given (2) persistent evidence that states struggle in lots of ways for lots of reasons with the fair and effective administration of capital punishment, I believe that (1+2=3) as a policy and practical matter we ought to consider and embrace an exclusively federal death penalty.

Regular readers have seen and surely remember various prior post in which I have talked through this idea a bit, and I have linked some of these posts below.  But, as the title of this post is meant to highlight, I think the soundness and wisdom of my distinctive view on the best modern way to administer capital punishment in the United States is now on full display in the wake of the Boston bombings.

Massachusetts, of course, does not have death as an available punishment.  And yet, I have already seen reports of many local and state officials (not to mention Massachusetts citizens) who now say they are open to (if not eager to) have the bombing suspect(s) prosecuted in federal court in part because federal law includes the possibility of the death penalty.  Moreover, there is every reason to view terror bombings like these, whether or not they have direct international connections and implications, as the kinds of crimes that ought to be investigated and prosecuted primarily by national authorities (assisted, of course, by state and local official and agents).

Stated in slightly different terms and with the events in Boston now making these ideas especially salient and timely, I believe that essentially by definition in our modern globally-wired and national-media-saturated American society (1) every potential “worst of the worst” murder is of national (and not just local) concern, and (2) every potential “worst of the worst” murder merits the potential involvement of federal investigators, and (3) federal authorities have constitutional and practical reasons for wanting or needing to be the primary “deciders” concerning the investigation and prosecution of every potential “worst of the worst” murder, and (4) state and local officials typically will welcome being able to “federalize” any potential “worst of the worst” murder, and thus (1+2+3+4=5) we should just make death a punishment only available at the federal level so that the feds know they can and should get involved if (and only when?) federal interests and/or the value of cooperative federalism are implicated by any potential “worst of the worst” murder.

2 thoughts on “How about a federal-only death penalty?

  1. The practical argument against the death penalty, one with which I agree, is that there are too many people sentenced to death and later proven not guilty. Once executed, there is no correction.

    Federalizing the death penalty would be another step in killing the Federalist System. Impatience to correct all wrongs has led to concentration of power in Washington, robbed the States of powers reserved for them in the Constitution and resulted in stupid mistakes, such as ethanol, to name one, applying to the entire nation. If the Constitution is followed, there can be 50 laboratories in which to try ideas and expose the ones that do not work and identify the ones that do.

  2. I was raised in Michigan and have spent much of my adult life in that state. We have never had a death penalty. The state constitution was written by some liberal outliers. (See Michael Moore). We have life in prison without parole, and it works. Of course, we are not a former member of the Confederacy.
    I am firmly against the death penalty. Period.

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