The House yesterday voted to establish a federal death penalty for large-scale drug trafficking and more than 20 other crimes and to sharply restrict the appeal rights of death row inmates.
Moving toward passage of a far-reaching anti-crime bill, the House also rejected the pleas of law enforcement groups and adopted by a vote of 257 to 172 an amendment, backed by the National Rifle Association, that would permit the continued manufacture of semiautomatic assault weapons made with domestically produced parts. The Bush administration last year banned importation of foreign-made assault weapons, but imposed no restrictions on identical U.S.-made weapons.
Civil liberties groups and some House Democratic leaders denounced the votes as "senseless" pre-election responses to reports of soaring rates of violent crime in many cities. At one point some Democrats sarcastically called out, "Kill! Kill! Kill!"
"Would it be possible to bring the guillotines directly to the House floor?" asked an angry Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.).
But the actions were a victory for the Bush administration, which last month mounted a major lobbying offensive against a different anti-crime package that had been approved by the House Judiciary Committee. Branding the committee's measure "pro-criminal," Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and other administration officials mobilized groups of district attorneys and attorneys general to urge the House to substitute President Bush's more stringent proposals aimed at streamlining death row appeals and expediting executions by the states.
The result was a series of stinging rebukes for the committee. On a vote of 285 to 146, the House adopted an administration-backed amendment by Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) that would limit habeas corpus petitions death row inmates could bring in federal courts. In recent years, inmates have commonly used such petitions to raise repeated constitutional challenges to their convictions, resulting in what Hyde said were "endless, endless, endless delays" in the execution of convicted murderers.
The amendent would adopt the recommendations of a judicial committee headed by former Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell. It would permit states to set up an accelerated system in which a competent counsel would be appointed for each death row inmate, who would be allowed to file one habeas corpus petition within 180 days. If the Supreme Court rejected the appeal, further challenges would be barred except in extraordinary circumstances, and the execution would proceed.
The House also adopted amendments that would substantially add to the list of federal crimes for which the death penalty could be applied: train wrecks or airplane bombings that result in death, murder with mail bombs, and drug trafficking when the drugs lead to overdose deaths, even if accidental. Major drug traffickers would face the death penalty regardless of whether they ordered or committed murder.
Some experts said the bill could raise a host of new constitutional questions. "There could be a new flurry of litigation around this very bill that could have the opposite effect" than the one sponsors desire and might actually delay executions, said Michael Kroll, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.