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U.S. Death Penalty Law Not Valid, Judge Rules

Court: A defense lawyer says the decision could jeopardize capital cases across the nation.

September 25, 2002|From Associated Press

MONTPELIER, Vt. — A U.S. judge declared the federal death penalty law unconstitutional Tuesday in a ruling that defense lawyers said could provide a new argument for challenging capital cases across the country.

U.S. District Judge William Sessions said recent cases, including a U.S. Supreme Court ruling which found that juries and not judges must hand out death sentences, have rendered existing death penalty law unusable.

Since the high court's ruling in June, a federal judge in New York has ruled that capital punishment is in itself unconstitutional. Other federal judges, in Virginia and Pennsylvania, have upheld the Federal Death Penalty Act.

Sessions found that capital punishment would be legal if Congress repaired defects in the 1994 law.

Federal prosecutors in Vermont and elsewhere have responded to the high court ruling by taking cases back to grand juries to consider whether defendants should get the death penalty if convicted.

Sessions ruled that the death penalty law makes no provision for such action. He also found that giving grand juries a hand in death penalty decisions is unconstitutional because such panels do not hold to the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt, and because they do not offer defendants the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses.

The ruling came in the case of Donald Fell, 22, who is charged with kidnapping and killing a woman in a November 2000 carjacking. Prosecutors said they would appeal.

Fell's lawyer, Alexander Bunin, called the ruling a landmark that could jeopardize cases against every defendant facing the death penalty, including the case of Sept. 11 conspiracy suspect Zacarias Moussaoui.

Paul Martinek, editor of Lawyers Weekly USA, said a higher court will have to agree with Sessions before that happens.

But, Martinek added, "The intellectual implications for influencing what other judges might do, potentially influencing what the 2nd Circuit [Court of Appeals] and maybe the Supreme Court might do, are pretty big. It's a new idea about how to challenge the federal death penalty."

In July, U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff in New York became the first federal judge to declare the law unconstitutional. He cited evidence indicating that innocent people have been executed. The government is appealing that ruling.

The rulings by Rakoff and Sessions will not affect individual states' death penalty statutes. Thirty-eight states allow capital punishment, although some have not executed anyone for years.

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