If you’ve ever read our blog (or follow Pennsylvania news), you’re probably already aware of the death penalty moratorium ordered by Governor Tom Wolf earlier this year. The controversial moratorium - which has been continually challenged during the past several months - temporarily suspends statewide use of capital punishment. But what about capital punishment for federal crimes? Which federal offenses carry the death sentence? And what happens if there’s a conflict between state and federal laws?
In Pennsylvania, the only capital offense is aggravated murder. Even then, prosecutors are unlikely - or unable, in light of the capital punishment moratorium - to actually seek the death penalty for defendants.
Since the death penalty’s reinstatement by the Supreme Court in 1976, only three individuals have been executed in the state of Pennsylvania, all of whom were put to death from 1995 to 1999 under the Governorship of Tom Ridge. In all three cases, the convicted offenders - namely Keith Zettlemoyer, Leon Moser, and Gary M. Heidnik - declined to appeal and requested capital punishment.
As of July, 2015, Gov. Wolf’s moratorium remains in effect. However, that may not be true for much longer, depending on the ultimate result of the legal battle in which the moratorium is embroiled. Earlier this month, Attorney General Kathleen Kane asked the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania to nullify the moratorium. The governor, who has continued to support the order, responded by asking the court to deny Kane’s challenge.
Contemporary defendants are protected - at least, to a limited extent - by Gov. Wolf’s moratorium. However, the moratorium’s legal reach extends only to Pennsylvania state crimes. It does not have the power to supersede federal law, which currently permits the use of capital punishment for the following six offenses:
(In fact, the true list of federal capital crimes is actually much longer, since crimes are categorized even more specifically. For example, murder alone is divided into murder relating to the smuggling of aliens, murder by a federal prisoner, murder related to racketeering offenses, murder related to rape, murder related to child molestation, and numerous other crimes.)
As noted previously, Pennsylvania defendants in federal murder cases are not shielded by the provisions of Gov. Wolf’s moratorium. As Department of Justice (DOJ) spokesperson Peter Carr has stated, federal prosecutors "cannot, and do not, consider whether a particular state supports capital punishment or has abolished capital punishment" when deciding whether to seek the death penalty for a defendant. Likewise, the Obama Administration has instructed the DOJ to evaluate whether a given state will "obtain an appropriate punishment."
At the same time, the likelihood of capital punishment still varies on a case-by-case basis. As noted by law professor Rory Little - once a member of the death penalty review committee under Clinton Attorney General Janet Reno - the Obama Administration has traditionally followed state policies. Little draws a comparison against the Bush Administration, under which former Attorney General John Ashcroft aggressively pursued increased implementation of the death penalty.
If you’ve been charged with federal murder or other federal crimes, you could be facing the most serious penalty of all. It is absolutely critical that you contact a highly experienced criminal defense attorney immediately. To arrange for a free, confidential legal consultation, call the law offices of Krasner & Long right away at (215) 882-9752. We represent clients in Philadelphia and throughout the state of Pennsylvania.