U.S. prosecutors ready to seek death penalty in Md.

July 03, 1995|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,Sun Staff Writer

It could be a gang lord or a murderous carjacker or a drug smuggler.

But sometime in the coming months, U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia expects to take the unprecedented step of seeking the death penalty against someone for committing a federal crime in Maryland.

While expected to be the first such request here by a federal prosecutor, it won't be unique.

Partly in reaction to Americans' growing anxiety about violent crime -- and armed with dozens of crimes that newly qualify for capital punishment -- federal prosecutors in the 96 districts nationwide are quietly gearing up to seek the death penalty.

In January, Attorney General Janet Reno released death penalty guidelines, which have never before existed at the Department of Justice. And a first-of-its-kind federal death row with space for 50 occupants is to open at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., within six months. It is equipped with a new, lethal-injection death chamber.

"We're anticipating that the 50 should carry us for quite some time," said Bill Bechtold of the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington. "But it's one of those things that's hard to speculate. Public opinion is very much for the death penalty now, and prosecutors are feeling the pressure to seek it."

Ms. Battaglia says there is no mistaking the public mood.

"The reason the death penalty is becoming more of a concern is that the public seems to be asking prosecutors and the system for more consideration of it," she said. "When I go out into the community, people are consistently asking me why we haven't invoked the death penalty in this system."

It is just that sort of public pressure that death penalty opponents find worrisome.

Many politicians are getting tough on crime, and the rhetoric is affecting the courtroom, they note. In the 1992 election year, the number of federal death penalty prosecutions jumped to 14, up from five in the previous four years, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

"Next year, corrections will be in the air: Who's tougher on crime? Who is applying the federal death penalty?" said Richard Dieter, the center's executive director. "With that in mind, I think prosecutors will be thinking of seeking it."

Since 1927, when records were first kept, 34 federal prisoners have been executed. But it has been 32 years since Victor Feguer was hanged in Iowa for kidnapping.

Generally abandoned in 1972, after the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty, capital punishment was revived gradually as the high court determined that the issue should be left to the states. In 1988, Congress renewed the federal death penalty, allowing capital punishment for drug kingpins convicted of murder in the course of running their operations.

Justice Department budgeters expect that the number of death penalty requests will double from about 10 a year to 20. The most recent estimates indicate each case costs about $340,000 in public defender fees alone. Some estimate the cost of prosecuting a death penalty case at more than $1 million.

The crime bill Congress passed last year expanded the number of federal capital crimes to more than 50. Now, prosecutors can seek the death penalty for carjackings, drive-by shootings or the murder of a law enforcement officer, for example. It can also be sought for virtually any federal crime linked to a homicide.

Those who question this initiative are troubled by how the federal death penalty will be sought and whether it is likely to make a difference in crime.

In a recent poll of the nation's police chiefs, the death penalty ranked last among methods they felt were effective in reducing street crime. Only 1 percent said they would choose it as a prime campaign issue for safer streets.

And a critical study released by a congressional subcommittee last year reported that 89 percent of the defendants selected for capital prosecutions were minorities.

"This pattern of inequality adds to the mounting evidence that race continues to play an unacceptable part in the application of capital punishment in America today," the report concluded.

In establishing nationwide guidelines, Ms. Reno sought to plot a consistent and fair approach for federal death penalty cases, said Margaret A. Grove, a deputy chief of policy in the Justice Department's criminal division.

Under the guidelines, Ms. Reno will receive recommendations directly from prosecutors and review every case that qualifies for capital punishment, even if the U.S. attorney in that district opposes seeking the death penalty in the case. Ms. Reno makes the final decision.

Recently, for example, she persuaded U.S. Attorney Eric H. Holder Jr. of Washington to change his mind and seek the death penalty against a man accused in the 1993 killing of a district police officer.

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