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Federal death penalty overturned

Federal death penalty overturned

From Terry Frieden
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A U.S. district judge in New York ruled the federal death penalty unconstitutional Monday, saying it violates the due process rights of defendants and that innocent people have been put to death.

U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff issued the 28-page ruling while hearing pre-trial arguments in the case of two accused Bronx-based heroin dealers charged with hogtying, torturing and killing an informant in 1999. If upheld, the ruling would not affect death penalty statutes in individual states.

James Comey, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, issued a statement saying, "The Federal Death Penalty Act is constitutional. In light of Judge Rakoff's decision, we are considering our appellate options."

In his ruling, Rakoff said he found that "on the one hand, innocent people are sentenced to death with materially greater frequency than was previously supposed and that, on the other hand, convincing proof of their innocence often does not emerge until long after their convictions."

Rakoff indicated to prosecutors in April that he was thinking about declaring the federal death penalty unconstitutional and gave them a last chance to persuade him otherwise.

Opinion and order: U.S. v. Quinones 
Original opinion and order: U.S. v. Quinones  
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Prosecutors pointed out that Rakoff's references in his ruling were to death sentences from state courts and thus could not be compared to federal death penalty cases.

They also noted that of the 31 federal inmates sentenced to death in the 14 years the federal statute has been in place, none has later been found innocent.

Even opponents of the death penalty acknowledged the likelihood Rakoff's ruling would be overturned on appeal.

"It's not really the federal death penalty that the judge has a problem with, but it's all he has control of," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a group opposed to all death penalties.

"But the judge does raise the most critical question facing the death penalty today, after what we have learned with innocent people being released from death row," Dieter said.

The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently supported the constitutionality of the death penalty. Last Wednesday, the high court refused a last-minute appeal from a death row inmate in Texas.

In 1976, the court ruled in Gregg v. Georgia that the death penalty is constitutional. No federal inmates were executed, however, until Timothy McVeigh and Raul Garza were put to death last year at the Federal Penitentiary at Terre Haute, Indiana.

And while no federal inmate has been put to death and later found innocent, convicted Alabama murderer David Ronald Chandler did have his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment by President Clinton when questions about his case were raised. His conviction has not been overturned.




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