U.S.: House Amendment Tilts Playing Field for Death Penalty

(Washington, October 27, 2005) -- The House has slipped an
amendment into the Patriot Act Reauthorization Act that would
dramatically skew federal death penalty cases in favor of the
prosecution, Human Rights Watch said today.

The legislation would radically increase the number of federal crimes
drawing the death penalty, allow judges to reduce juries deciding the
death penalty to fewer than twelve persons, and allow the prosecutor to
start afresh in trying to get the death penalty with a new sentencing
jury any time even one juror resists imposing the death penalty in a
capital case.

Under current federal law, the defendant is given a life sentence if a
jury of twelve does not unanimously vote for the death penalty. Under
this legislation, the prosecutor could re-impanel a new jury and try for
death once again.

"It's a strange notion of justice indeed to give prosecutors multiple
bites at the apple," said Jamie Fellner, U.S. Director of Human Rights
Watch. "Death penalty cases are already riddled with unfairness. Why
would Congress want to make them worse?"

Human Rights Watch said that the legislation would give dramatic
power to a single juror who could hold out for the death penalty – and
thus enable the prosecution to secure a new jury. Juries in death
penalty cases are already "death-qualified," meaning that anyone who
opposes the death penalty on moral, religious, or practical grounds is
excluded from the jury. Yet another legislative provision passed by the
House would tilt the trial in favor of death even further by permitting
the judge to reduce the number of jurors below twelve, with no
minimum number set. A smaller jury would make it even easier for
prosecutors to secure a unanimous verdict in favor of death.

The House provisions would also triple the number of death penalty-
eligible terrorism related crimes and allow the government to impose
the death penalty even if the defendant had no knowledge or intent to
kill. Under this legislation, an individual could be sentenced to death
for providing financial support to a designated terrorist organization
whose members caused the death of another, even if this individual did
not know or in any way intend that the members engage in any
specific acts of violence.

Rep. John Carter (R- Tex.) introduced these death penalty provisions
as last minute amendments to the House version of the Patriot Act
Reauthorization Act. They were passed by voice vote, without debate.
The Patriot Act Reauthorization Act passed by the Senate contains
none of these death penalty provisions. A final version of the
legislation is expected to emerge from conference with the Senate in
the next one to two weeks and go to the floor of both the House and
Senate for an up or down vote.

"These provisions dramatically extend the reach of the federal death
penalty and make it significantly easier for the prosecution to secure
death, an inherently cruel penalty," said Jennifer Daskal, U.S. Program
Advocate at Human Rights Watch. "Such a radical change to the
federal death penalty should not become law without public debate."

The key provisions are in Title II of H.R. 3199. Section 231 (f) allows
for the impaneling of consecutive juries in the penalty phase of a death
penalty trial, and Sections 211 and 214 together add a long list of new
federal death penalty eligible crimes that do not carry the intent
requirement laid out in 18 U.S.C. § 3591(b).

The Senate version of the Patriot Act Reauthorization (S.1389) does
not include these provisions.

House and Senate negotiators have begun to meet to iron out the
differences in the two bills. A final version will be voted on by named
conferees and then sent back to the House and Senate for an up or
down vote.

Senate conferees are Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Mike DeWine (R-OH), Orrin
Hatch (R-UT), Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Carl
Levin (D-MI), Pat Roberts (R-KS), John Rockefeller (D-WV), Jeff
Sessions (R-AL), Arlen Specter (R-PA).

House conferees have not yet been named.

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