Death penalty aff



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Death Penalty Affirmative
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Segura, 19 --- award-winning investigative journalist covering the U.S. criminal justice system, with a longtime focus on harsh sentencing, the death penalty, and wrongful conviction (7/29/19, Liliana Segura, “WITH FEDERAL EXECUTIONS LOOMING, THE DEMOCRATS’ DEATH PENALTY LEGACY IS COMING BACK TO HAUNT US,” https://theintercept.com/2019/07/29/death-penalty-federal-executions/, accessed on 4/14/2020, JMP)
Many of the assumptions that persist about capital punishment at the state level — including that it is reserved for the “worst of the worst” — are mirrored by perceptions of capital punishment at the federal level. One is the belief that the federal death penalty targets terrorists. In fact, of the 62 people on federal death row, only one, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was convicted on terror charges. Another is the notion that the federal system is somehow superior to what exists in the states, a myth repeated by Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail in 2016. “People think the federal death penalty is the gold standard,” said Foster, who has handled state and federal cases from coast to coast. “That is absurd.” Cohen recalls her surprise when she first started handling federal cases. As jaded as she had become after decades of capital defense on state cases, she said, “I thought the federal cases would be cleaner. I thought they would involve really good defense lawyers and really careful judging and really smart prosecutors and lots of judicial review. And I was really shocked to find that it is not that way.” In any close examination of federal death penalty cases, “you will find trauma, you will find mental illness, you’ll find procedural disasters, you’ll find junk science, you’ll find all kinds of problematic stuff because the federal death penalty is plagued by the same problems that have caused people to move away from the death penalty in the states.” Many have noted that the move to restart executions defies national trends showing the death penalty moving toward extinction. Given Trump’s longtime zeal for capital punishment, it is understandable that his critics see the decision as yet another low point in his tenure. But while Trump’s Democratic opponents have condemned his actions — and even responded with new abolition legislation — it is only very recently that the party began to turn away from capital punishment. The 2020 race is the first time in decades that all major Democratic candidates are on record as opposing it. Particularly notable is Joe Biden, who came out against the death penalty just two days before Barr’s announcement last week. The tough-on-crime senator of the 1980s and ’90s was instrumental in pushing legislation that expanded federal death sentences — the vast majority of people on federal death row today were sentenced under the now-notorious 1994 crime bill. The law “caused a cascade of problems that we’re only now reckoning with,” Cohen said. “And we haven’t reckoned with the death penalty aspects of that set of statutes until now.” If Trump’s opponents are truly sincere about grappling with the federal death penalty, they can start by confronting the Democrats’ role in building it. A Cascade of Problems Just over a month before Barr’s announcement, on June 18, a U.S. District Court judge vacated the federal death sentence of a man named Bruce Webster. One of five men convicted in the abduction, rape, and murder of a 16-year-old girl named Lisa Rene in Arlington, Texas, Webster had been on federal death row since 1996. There was evidence from the start that he was less culpable than others involved in the crime — most importantly, IQ tests introduced by his attorneys that suggested he was “mentally retarded.” But prosecutors accused Webster of faking his answers to escape the death penalty. In 1996, a judge in the Northern District of Texas sentenced him to die. Webster would likely not have ended up on federal death row if not for legislation passed just days before his crime. In September 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, otherwise known as the 1994 crime bill. The sweeping legislation included the Federal Death Penalty Act, which vastly expanded federal death sentences. Overnight, 60 new offenses became punishable by death. Among them were crimes like “kidnapping resulting in death,” one of several felony murder crimes that made it easier to convict multiple people for one killing. Federal prosecutors initially said they were considering seeking death sentences against all five men. But ultimately, they would target Webster and his co-defendant Orlando Hall — the “first death penalty case filed under the new crime bill in the nation,” as one U.S. attorney announced. The three other defendants would plead guilty in exchange for lesser sentences. Hall was tried first, in 1995. Prosecutors described him as the mastermind, while defense attorneys said he’d never meant to abduct Lisa Rene and that “things got out of hand, with Bruce Webster in charge.” By contrast, Webster’s attorneys gave no opening statement at trial. Emotions ran high as jurors began deliberating on his fate in June 1996; newspapers reported that Lisa Rene’s sister had “accidentally” seen “gruesome, poster-sized” images of Rene’s face in court earlier that day, screaming and having to be helped off the witness stand. The trial judge denied a motion for a mistrial. After 75 minutes, the jury convicted Webster, later recommending a death sentence. Six years after Webster was sent to death row, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling, Atkins v. Virginia, which prohibited death sentences for people with intellectual disabilities. Still, his sentence remained intact. When the Bush administration set an execution date for Webster in 2006, a clemency petition circulated by Amnesty International detailed the horrific abuse Webster and his siblings experienced at the hands of their father, a common component of death penalty cases. The treatment included such torture as forcing his children to eat human waste, subjecting them to electrical shocks and burns from a hot iron, and “forced sex between the children.” Webster ultimately won a temporary reprieve by joining the ongoing federal lethal injection lawsuit. Then, in 2009, his federal habeas attorneys discovered a slew of files that had never been released by the state. Among them were records showing that government psychologists had examined Webster in 1993 — a year before the crime that sent him to die — and concluded that he had an intellectual disability. Other records showed that Webster had taken special education classes, despite testimony claiming the opposite at trial. But perhaps most unsettling were Social Security forms Webster had filled out to apply for disability benefits. In his June order overturning Webster’s death sentence, the judge quoted excerpts from the documents. Webster’s answers were “incomprehensible,” he wrote, and indicative of his “significant limitations” in intellectual and conceptual functioning. Foster, the Indiana-based attorney, was on Webster’s legal team when the new evidence was found. “When you look at all of these records and when you look at his application for Social Security — oh my God,” she recalled. Like all attorneys who represent people facing execution, the problem of intellectual disability is one she has seen repeatedly across the board. But there is an additional problem at the federal level. Whereas state death penalty convictions are subject to layers of review, first at the state level and then by the federal courts, federal convictions only get the latter. Despite the role these courts are supposed to play in theory — and thanks in part to another sweeping Clinton-era law curtailing federal review — many cases receive little meaningful scrutiny. Cohen points out that the U.S. Supreme Court has taken virtually no federal death sentences on direct review. And while in theory, clients are entitled to evidentiary hearings in the same District Courts where they were convicted — a chance to raise the kinds of violations often found in capital cases, such as ineffective assistance of counsel — “there are a huge number of guys, including people who are now scheduled for execution, who got no evidentiary hearing.” This was true of Webster until the new evidence got him back into court. If not for that discovery, Webster may well have been on the list of people facing execution. Federal Intrusion on State Cases There is no question that the crime for which Webster was convicted — like those of the five men facing execution dates — was horrific and disturbing. But neither was there any compelling reason that it had to be handled by the federal government. A major effect of the 1994 crime bill was to encourage the Department of Justice to take over cases that could have been prosecuted at the state level. When the federal death penalty was resurrected in 1988, its scope was ostensibly limited to “drug kingpins” and trafficking-related crimes. But now practically any murder involving additional felonies is fair game. As federal prosecutions ramped up in the mid- to late 1990s, evidence of racism became unmistakable.


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