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The federal death penalty at the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is the court of last resort for death row inmates around the country. The vast majority of death row inmates are convicted and sentenced under state death penalty laws, and so most of the capital appeals that the court reviews concern state statutes. The federal death penalty is given in a small number of cases and carried out in even fewer. As a result, the history of the court’s interaction with federal capital appeals is brief, although the Department of Justice has recently announced its intention to resume federal executions, prompting challenges that are currently pending. (For a detailed primer on the role of the Supreme Court in capital cases, see here.)

In 1972, the court ruled in Furman v. Georgia that all death penalty laws, both federal and state, were unconstitutional because of the penalty’s arbitrary and discriminatory administration. States were quick to pass new death penalty laws to address the concerns; the court upheld some of those statutes four years later in Gregg v. Georgia. Congress did not reinstate the federal death penalty until 1988, however, and then only for some drug-related crimes. A full-fledged reinstatement arrived with the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994, which dramatically expanded the list of federal crimes eligible for the death penalty and outlined procedures for administering it.

Since 1988, 79 people have been sentenced to death under federal law. Only a fraction of these cases have reached the Supreme Court. In the case of David Chandler, the justices were spared from acting by a grant of clemency from President Bill Clinton “two hours before [he] left office in 2001.” (Only the president can grant clemency for federal death row inmates.) In the cases of Aquilia Barnette and Billie Jerome Allen, the court vacated and remanded the defendants’ death sentences to federal appeals courts in light of its own decisions on relevant state death penalty laws. Both inmates remain on federal death row, which today houses over 60 inmates.

Of the 79 individuals given the federal death penalty in the modern era, only three have been executed. All three inmates unsuccessfully appealed to the Supreme Court.

Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, was sentenced to death under federal law in June of 1997. After the court declined to review his appeal two years later, the government set an execution date of May 16, 2001. A last-minute revelation that the FBI had withheld over 3,000 pages of relevant documents from McVeigh’s attorneys earned a 30-day stay of execution from Attorney General John Ashcroft on May 11, 2001. When a federal court denied McVeigh’s appeal, however, he declined to appeal to the Supreme Court or seek clemency and said that he wished to die. McVeigh was executed when his 30 days ran out on June 11, 2001.

Juan Raul Garza, a drug trafficker who killed three other traffickers, was given the death penalty in August of 1993. The court declined to review his appeal in 1999, and the government set an execution date of August 5, 2000, later postponed to December 12, 2000. Garza would have been the first federal inmate to be executed since Furman until Clinton in December further postponed the execution in order to examine “racial and geographic disparities in the federal death penalty system.” Despite the study, the president eventually denied Garza’s application for clemency and the court declined to review his final appeal. Garza became the second federal inmate to be executed in the modern era on June 19, 2001, eight days after the execution of McVeigh.

Louis Jones Jr., a soldier who kidnapped, raped and murdered a female soldier, was sentenced to death under federal law in November of 1995. Jones appealed, and the justices granted his request for review and scheduled oral argument for February 22, 1999. Jones maintained that his lack of prior criminal record and the combination of post-traumatic stress disorder and nerve-gas exposure he suffered due to his tours in combat made the death penalty inappropriate. The court upheld his conviction and death sentence on June 21, 1999. After President George Bush denied his clemency request, Jones was executed on March 18, 2003.

Recommended Citation: Kalvis Golde, The federal death penalty at the Supreme Court, SCOTUSblog (Feb. 14, 2020, 1:00 PM),