WASHINGTON — Bowing to threats from Capitol Hill, the commission set up to give judges clearer rules for the sentencing of federal criminals voted Tuesday to drop any reference to the death penalty.
On a 4-3 vote, the U.S. Sentencing Commission decided reluctantly to exclude sentencing guidelines that could have reinstated the death penalty for federal crimes such as treason, espionage or airline hijacking.
Last week, key Senate Democrats said the new sentencing standards would be "dead on arrival" on Capitol Hill if they included capital punishment.
"The political realities of the moment are not worth jeopardizing the entire package," said Judge William W. Wilkins Jr., chairman of the seven-member panel.
May Be Added Later
Wilkins stressed that he strongly favors death sentences for some serious crimes and may seek to add such rules next year.
"By including it this first time, we ran the risk of losing this opportunity to make significant improvements in our criminal justice system," he said afterward.
The new sentencing guidelines, which will go into effect unless vetoed by Congress, would abolish parole for federal crimes and give judges less discretion in meting out sentences, Wilkins said.
The commission plans two public hearings in Washington this week on its second draft of sentencing standards. The package is to be sent to Congress by April 13, and the legislators then have six months to take action on the commission's guidelines.
Controversy over the death penalty erupted in January when the Justice Department suggested that the sentencing commission could reinstate death sentences for some crimes. That was a surprise to congressional liberals, who said they supported the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 with the clear understanding that the new rules would cover only criminal sentences "authorized" under federal law.
But Charles Cooper, who heads the department's office of legal counsel, concluded that the death penalty is still authorized under federal law, even though the Supreme Court had concluded in 1972 that all such statutes were unconstitutional as then administered.
In 1976, the high court upheld state capital punishment laws that set guidelines for juries on deciding who would get the death penalty. Congress took no action to revive federal death sentences, and as a result, most legal observers believed that the statutes were invalid.
This was not the first controversial opinion to come from Cooper's office, however. Last year, he said that federal contractors could fire an AIDS patient if they had a fear--even an unfounded one--that such persons posed a threat to co-workers.