The death penalty doesn’t have as much support as it once did, but ...
The U.S. Justice Department announced last week that it intends to resume executions later this year after a 16-year hiatus caused by legal challenges to the practice.
Death penalty abolitionists, not surprisingly and consistent with their principles, immediately objected, suggesting that the Justice Department’s decision is improper.
Actually, it’s completely proper because it’s consistent with federal law that authorizes the ultimate penalty in specific kinds of cases. The recent trial of convicted murderer Brendt Christensen is one of those types of cases.
Luckily for Christensen, jurors opted not to impose death as punishment, choosing instead a sentence of life in prison.
Of course, capital punishment would be off the table if opponents persuaded Congress to eliminate it as an option in egregious cases. Until they do, proponents and opponents can argue ad nauseam about what’s moral, what’s arbitrary and what’s just — but federal law authorizes capital punishment.
Illinois eliminated the death penalty from its statutes in 2011, and for good reason.
The process, for a variety of reasons, resulted in many wrongful convictions and what would have been wrongful executions. In a circumstance where even one wrongful sentence of death is too many, it was prudent, even if distasteful to many, that the penalty be taken off the table. In a system of justice, the real possibility of the ultimate injustice cannot be ignored.
Suffice it to say, however, the federal death penalty contains far more procedural safeguards than those in the states, starting with the appointment of first-rate defense lawyers who work zealously to protect their clients’ rights and hold the prosecutors to their obligation of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
That level of competency was on display for all to see in the Christensen case.
Few people will have much sympathy for those who have been convicted of murder in federal court and are awaiting scheduled executions.
They include white supremacist Dylann Roof, who murdered nine members of a South Carolina black church in 2015, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston Marathon bomber who killed three and wounded more than 260 in 2013.
Almost all of those in line for prompt execution are multiple murderers whose criminal behavior was truly shocking, consistent with the standard that the death penalty should be reserved for the worst of the worst.
The announcement about resuming executions was made by U.S. Attorney General William Barr, who said the “Justice Department upholds the law, and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”
That doesn’t mean, of course, that lawyers for the condemned won’t continue to come up with clever arguments designed to indefinitely delay executions. Many death row inmates at the federal and state levels have lived on death row for decades.
What it does mean, however, is that the federal prosecutors will be more aggressive in terms of imposition of this penalty. Those who don’t like it can take their complaints to members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.