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Complex appeals process delays federal executions

McVeigh could sit in jail for years

From Correspondent Terry Frieden

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- If Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh is sentenced to death, he may not face execution for years to come.

Thirteen others have been handed federal death sentences since capital punishment was reinstated by the U.S. government in 1988. One of the sentences has been overturned, and no executions are expected for at least another year.

The last federal government execution occurred 34 years ago.

That's a dramatic contrast with capital punishment at the state level, where 387 people have been put to death in the past 20 years. More than 3,000 others now sit on death rows in 34 states.

Appeals can take 10 years

Experts attribute the lack of federal executions to several factors, among them Justice Department procedures. A committee of Justice executives, and finally Attorney General Janet Reno, must approve every death penalty requested by federal prosecutors.

The process is secret, but officials say Reno has rejected about one-third of the slightly more than 100 proposed execution requests that have reached her desk in the past five years.

An extensive and complex appeals process is largely responsible for delays in executing those already sentenced to death by federal courts.

Attorneys involved in the process say it usually takes six to 10 years to exhaust appeals in capital cases. Adding to the uncertainty, the 1988 and 1994 laws in which Congress approved the federal death penalty for more than 60 offenses have not been fully tested.

Despite broad support for the death penalty by the public, politicians, and the Supreme Court, opponents of the ultimate punishment still hope the courts will strike down at least some provisions of the federal laws.

Federal executions more rare

The Supreme Court halted all executions in 1972, but approved revised state statutes in 1976. Since then, 38 states have passed death penalty laws. When Congress called for the death penalty for a wide range of crimes, the lawmakers passed provisions generally similar to those of state statutes already upheld by the Supreme Court.

The U.S. government historically has executed relatively few convicts. From 1927 to 1963, federal authorities imposed the ultimate punishment only 34 times, an average of fewer than one per year. The last execution was in 1963, when Victor Feguer was hanged at the Iowa Penitentiary for kidnapping and murder.

Experts believe that when the legal tests and appeals are exhausted in the coming few years, the federal government will again execute its death row inmates at a slow pace.

An Alabama man, David Ronald Chandler, was the first person sentenced to death in federal court under the new laws, and was long viewed as first in line for a federal execution. Sentenced in 1991 under the 1988 "drug kingpin" statute, Chandler is the only federal prisoner who had a date set with the executioner.

A federal judge stayed the 1995 execution. Since then his case been complicated by the claim of a key witness that he lied in Chandler's trial. The case is tied up in appeals court.

McVeigh and Unabomb suspect Theodore Kaczynski are the best known of more than 30 federal prisoners for whom the death penalty is now sought.

McVeigh likely would die by lethal injection

Officials say Reno and her two most recent predecessors have authorized prosecutors to seek the death penalty in at least 85 cases. However, for a variety of legal reasons, including plea bargaining, the majority of the proposed death sentences were eventually dropped.

If, and when, the federal government does execute someone, it's uncertain where and how the deaths will take place.

The Bush Administration declared federal executions would take place by lethal injection at a federal death chamber to be constructed at a federal penitentiary at Terre Haute, Indiana. The modern facility in a nondescript brick building just outside the prison fence was completed and put on public display two years ago. It features viewing areas for as many as 24 people.

Congress, however, placed in question the use of that facility when it passed the 1994 crime bill expanding crimes which may carry the death penalty. The law says federal executions are to be carried out in the state where the death sentence occurs, using the method of execution approved in that state.

If a death sentence is handed down, and eventually carried out in McVeigh's case, it would likely be administered by lethal injection, the method used in Oklahoma and Colorado, as well as the federal chamber in Indiana.

The American Bar Association in February reignited the death penalty issue by voting overwhelmingly for a moratorium in executions, charging the death penalty is administered unfairly.

Reno has said she does not personally like the death penalty and would vote against it in a legislature. But, Reno says she is able to see that it is carried out, and the Clinton Administration has strongly backed capital punishment. Reno's former Deputy Attorney General, Jamie Gorelick, personally urged the ABA not to adopt the moratorium on executions.


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