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Federal Death Penalty Last Used in 1963

Punishment: If jury orders execution of McVeigh, he would join 12 others awaiting fate. Appeal virtually certain.


WASHINGTON — If the jury that convicted Timothy J. McVeigh orders him to die for the Oklahoma City bombing, he would join 12 other prisoners waiting for the dubious distinction of becoming the first person executed by the federal government since 1963.

Even if sentenced to die, McVeigh would have a variety of legal appeals that could delay his death for years. But if he is to be executed, it almost certainly would be by lethal injection, probably in a newly built--and never used--facility in Terre Haute, Ind.

Congress has decreed that prisoners sentenced to death for federal crimes will die by the method of execution used in the state where they were sentenced. In McVeigh's case, that presumably would be Colorado, although the courts could decide that the applicable law is Oklahoma's. McVeigh's trial would have taken place there if not for a change of venue. It is a distinction without a difference, however, because both states use lethal injection.

Since Victor H. Feguer was hanged in an Iowa prison on federal kidnapping charges on March 15, 1963, Congress has revised the federal death penalty law several times. In 1994, Congress passed a broad capital punishment law, declaring about 40 crimes capital offenses.

Feguer was the 34th prisoner executed by the federal government since the Bureau of Prisons began keeping records in 1927. Probably the best-known federal executions were those of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who died in 1953 in the electric chair at New York's Sing Sing prison after being convicted of passing atomic bomb secrets to the Soviet Union.

Considering the pace of almost one execution a year for the 36 years between 1927 and 1963, no one could have guessed at the time that more than 34 years would pass without another federal execution. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled all state capital punishment statutes unconstitutional. Although the federal law was not at issue in the decision, lower courts ruled that it, too, was unenforceable. Although most states reinstated death penalty laws in the 1970s, Congress did not do so until 1988, when it passed a statute narrowly focused on murders by drug dealers.

According to Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, the 12 federal prisoners already on death row include five who were convicted of murder during the course of a narcotics conspiracy. Other federal capital crimes include carjacking, drive-by shootings, murder of the president or other high-ranking federal officials, espionage, treason and the two provisions invoked in McVeigh's case: destruction of a federal building in which death results and death by use of a weapon of mass destruction.

Atty. Gen. Janet Reno recently authorized prosecutors to seek the death penalty against Theodore Kaczynski, accused of several murders in the Unabomber case.

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