Yesterday, the jury came back in a San Francisco federal courtroom, and found Dennis Cyrus guilty of a number of gang-related acts, including the murders of three men – including Ray Jimmerson, who had informed the cops about the gang’s assorted criminal activities.

The Distinction Between State and Federal Prosecutors

It was the first time since 1991 that San Francisco has seen a trial where capital punishment was even on the table – two of its district attorneys had followed an internal determination not to seek the death penalty, even if the law allowed for capital punishment. But they are state officials, and this is a federal proceeding.

Over in the Northern District of California’s federal district court, the U.S. Attorney makes the call on whether or not to ask for the death penalty, and this U.S. Attorney has decided to do so in Cyrus’ case. It’s the first time since 1946 that the federal prosecutors have sought the death penalty in the Northern District. The last time that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in this federal district asked for capital punishment in a crime was in the 1946 trial of two men who had escaped from Alcatraz and in the process, had killed two guards and three prisoners.

So why now, 62 years later, is capital punishment being sought? Why now? Why Dennis Cyrus?

Some are saying it is merely the allegiance to standard operating procedure for the Department of Justice under the Bush Administration. During Bush’s era, U.S. Attorneys were to seek the death penalty in federal cases uniformly across the country, without looking to the state law of their region. In fact, there were times during the Bush Years where federal prosecutors sought the death penalty in courtrooms that sat in states which did not even allow for capital punishment under their state laws.

Now, under the Obama Administration, some have expected a change in stance. However, there has been no official statement forthcoming from the Justice Department – and the Dennis Cyrus case gives us a big hint on what that stance might be. Silence can speak volumes.

Meanwhile, as in Florida, the sentencing phase will begin for Dennis Cyrus shortly. Next week, the federal jury will reconvene and begin hearing evidence on aggravating circumstances and mitigating factors as they determine, using federal law, whether or not Dennis Cyrus should die because of the crimes for which they have found him guilty.

And the manner of death?

As a general rule, federal executions are controlled by the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (18 U.S.C. 3596), which provides that the federal judge must order execution in a manner authorized by the state in which the federal court sits. If that state does not have a death penalty, then the federal judge must make a choice: he or she picks a state with capital punishment to be responsible for the actual execution.

California does provide for capital punishment. Lethal injection is to be used, unless the prisoner requests death by inhalation of lethal gas (the gas chamber).