DOJ Announces No Federal Death Penalty in Airport Shooter Case

Do We Remember There is a Federal Death Penalty Statute? 

There is such a focus these days on the various states in discussions on capital punishment, that many may not realize that there is an active federal death penalty process, and that the Department of Justice's Office of the Attorney General can seek death in federal prosecutions all over the country. 

Federal Death Penalty Law

It will not matter if the state in which the federal court resides does not support capital punishment. Under federal law, if the defendant is being tried at the federal courthouse, then he or she may be sentenced to die.

The federal death penalty statute is found in Chapter 228 of Title 18 of the United States Crimes and Criminal Procedures Code.

Specifically, under 18 USC 3591:

(a)A defendant who has been found guilty of—

(1) an offense described in section 794 or section 2381; or

(2)any other offense for which a sentence of death is provided, if the defendant, as determined beyond a reasonable doubt at the hearing under section 3593

(A) intentionally killed the victim;

(B) intentionally inflicted serious bodily injury that resulted in the death of the victim;

(C) intentionally participated in an act, contemplating that the life of a person would be taken or intending that lethal force would be used in connection with a person, other than one of the participants in the offense, and the victim died as a direct result of the act; or

(D) intentionally and specifically engaged in an act of violence, knowing that the act created a grave risk of death to a person, other than one of the participants in the offense, such that participation in the act constituted a reckless disregard for human life and the victim died as a direct result of the act,

shall be sentenced to death if, after consideration of the factors set forth in section 3592 in the course of a hearing held pursuant to section 3593, it is determined that imposition of a sentence of death is justified, except that no person may be sentenced to death who was less than 18 years of age at the time of the offense.

(b)A defendant who has been found guilty of—

(1) an offense referred to in section 408(c)(1) of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 848(c)(1)), committed as part of a continuing criminal enterprise offense under the conditions described in subsection (b) of that section which involved not less than twice the quantity of controlled substance described in subsection (b)(2)(A) or twice the gross receipts described in subsection (b)(2)(B); or

(2) an offense referred to in section 408(c)(1) of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 848(c)(1)), committed as part of a continuing criminal enterprise offense under that section, where the defendant is a principal administrator, organizer, or leader of such an enterprise, and the defendant, in order to obstruct the investigation or prosecution of the enterprise or an offense involved in the enterprise, attempts to kill or knowingly directs, advises, authorizes, or assists another to attempt to kill any public officer, juror, witness, or members of the family or household of such a person,

shall be sentenced to death if, after consideration of the factors set forth in section 3592 in the course of a hearing held pursuant to section 3593, it is determined that imposition of a sentence of death is justified, except that no person may be sentenced to death who was less than 18 years of age at the time of the offense.

A variety of statutes provide for capital punishment in federal cases, from crimes like espionage or the assassination of a federal judge. The Death Penalty Information Center has created a table that lists death penalty references found in various federal statutory codes

Deciding on Death

This does not mean that every federal prosecution eligible for capital punishment will have the defendant facing the possibility of the death penalty. As in Florida state prosecutions, the decision on whether or not to seek death resides with the prosecutor.

For instance, this week it was announced by the Department of Justice that the Office of the Attorney General will not be asking for the death penalty in the case of Esteban Santiago, who pled guilty in a Miami federal courtroom to killing 5 people in the January 2017 shooting at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

For details, read “Fort Lauderdale airport shooter will plead guilty in deal to avoid death penalty,” written by Jay Weaver and published in the Miami Herald on May 1, 2018.

Read the Federal Indictment of Esteban Santiago here.

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