Print View  
OVERVIEW: Federal death penalty

last updated July 16, 2004

Since the return of the federal death penalty in 1988, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has pursued capital punishment in 318 cases.  Thirty-two individuals currently sit on federal death row and three others have been executed.  Even as public sentiment nationwide turns increasingly towards alternatives to capital punishment, the number of death sentences sought for federal offenses has risen significantly in recent years.  Unfortunately, this trend is expected to continue, driven in recent years by pressure from the U.S. Department of Justice.  Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights opposes the federal death penalty because it continues to be imposed in a capricious, arbitrary, and racially discriminatory manner, and effectively obliterates the states’ right to decide against imposing capital punishment on its citizens.

History of the federal death penalty
The Supreme Court’s 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia struck down both state and federal death penalty laws as unconstitutional.  But just as state legislatures remodeled state laws to overcome the deficiencies found unconstitutional in Furman, the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988 as part of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988.  Also known as the “drug king-pin” statute, the Act significantly lengthened sentences for those convicted of drug offenses and authorized the death penalty for major drug traffickers.

Historically, the number of federal offenses under which the death penalty could be sought was extremely limited, but the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994 expanded the federal death penalty to include some forty different offenses. Currently, death-eligible federal offenses include espionage, treason, murder for hire, kidnapping or assassination of certain government officials, and deaths resulting from offenses such as bank-robbery, civil rights violations, and sexual assault.  The federal death penalty now faces significant expansion under the Patriot Act II, a proposal by the DOJ to broaden the scope of the heavily criticized USA Patriot Act of 2001.  Pending legislation would create twenty-three new death-eligible offenses and authorize the death penalty for any violation of state or federal law that falls under the original Patriot Act’s overbroad definition of domestic or international terrorism.  

Seeking the Federal Death Penalty