The Justice Department has twice in recent weeks announced its intention to seek death sentences in federal cases, marking the first times Attorney General Jeff Sessions has authorized prosecutors to pursue such penalties since taking office last year.
Federal authorities are also considering seeking the death penalty in a third case — that of Sayfullo Saipov, the man charged with using a rented truck to kill eight people on a New York City bike path last Halloween — in what they say could presage an uptick in the number of capital sentences sought by the Trump administration.
President Trump has long been a staunch backer of capital punishment, issuing public pleas for death sentences in prominent cases both before and after taking office, most recently announcing that Saipov should face the death penalty. But U.S. support for capital punishment has been declining, dropping last year to its lowest level in decades, while the death penalty’s use has also sharply fallen nationwide.
Federal death sentences are relatively rare, and most death-penalty activity is carried out at the state or local level. In those federal cases where juries have been asked to decide on the death penalty, they have opted for life imprisonment about twice as often as death sentences. People sentenced to death for federal crimes also make up a small fraction of the death-row population nationwide: There are 61 people on federal death row out of more than 2,800 death-row inmates in the United States, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Federal executions are even more uncommon, with only three carried out since the federal death-penalty statute was reinstated in 1988, and none since 2003.
Executions and death sentences alike have both plummeted in recent years. There were 23 executions nationwide last year, down from a modern peak of 98 in 1999, according to the Death Penalty Information Center’s annual tally. Death sentences also fell to 39 last year from the 315 handed down in 1996. Both numbers increased slightly in 2017 over the year before, an expected uptick that was still far below what the country saw two decades earlier.
Popular support for capital punishment was also much higher in the mid-1990s, when about 4 out of 5 Americans said they favored the death penalty, a number that last year had fallen to 55 percent in a Gallup poll. Fewer states nationwide have capital punishment, and many of those that do have struggled to obtain lethal injection drugs or faced legal or logistical challenges in their attempts to carry out death sentences.
Still, the federal government has a considerably larger megaphone than local or state authorities, and federal prosecutors often handle some of the country’s most high-profile cases. This was true under President Barack Obama, who called the death penalty “deeply troubling” and ordered his Justice Department to review the issue, even as his administration also sought and won death sentences in cases like those against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the Boston Marathon bombers, and Dylann Roof, the Charleston, S.C., church gunman.
The Justice Department’s determination about whether to pursue federal death sentences follows an extensive process that can last for months and involves recommendations from the U.S. attorney’s office and input from the families of victims. In the Charleston case, it took nearly a year for then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch to announce the decision, which was opposed by some of those advising her, including the U.S. attorney in South Carolina at the time. Ultimately, the final call is made by the attorney general.
At least two such decisions made by Sessions, a former prosecutor, have been announced over the past three weeks. And more are expected to follow. Sessions’s decisions in those cases and the possibility of a death-penalty case against Saipov suggest that the Justice Department will be seeking an increased number of death sentences in the months and years ahead, according to Sarah Isgur Flores, a department spokeswoman.
Sessions’s decisions and the Justice Department’s intentions to seek more death sentences were first reported Tuesday by the Wall Street Journal.
The first case Sessions decided warranted the death penalty involves charges against Jarvis Wayne Madison, who has been accused of kidnapping, kidnapping that resulted in death, and interstate domestic violence. Authorities said Madison kidnapped his estranged wife while she was going for a run in Ormand Beach, Fla., where she had gone to get away from her husband after he had also taken her captive in Indiana.
After being arrested, Madison admitted to shooting her three times, an FBI special agent wrote in an affidavit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida. Madison then led FBI agents to the location in Tennessee where they found her partially buried body. Madison pleaded not guilty last year. In a separate case connected to Madison’s, another woman also having a relationship with him pleaded guilty to obstructing justice by lying to investigators; she was sentenced last year to seven years, three months in prison.
Prosecutors said in a Dec. 19 court filing they had determined that the death penalty was justified in the case. They cited as an aggravating factor that Madison’s estranged wife was killed while she was being kidnapped, which meant her death occurred while another crime was being carried out. The notice also said Madison had “a pattern of domestic abuse, including physical and emotional abuse, against women,” including his wife and others.
An attorney for Madison did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
On Monday, federal prosecutors followed suit in Michigan in a case officials said involved multiple gang members accused of racketeering, murder and other crimes.
Prosecutors said Billy Arnold shot and killed two people — one in July 2014 and another in May 2015 — during a gang war in Detroit. They also said Arnold and others assaulted other people intending to commit murder. Court filings said Arnold and others in the Seven Mile Bloods gang — which authorities say makes its money selling cocaine, heroin and other drugs — have long had a rivalry with other gangs in the Detroit area, but things escalated into violent attacks with “hit lists” posted on social media beginning in July 2014.
In a filing Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan’s Southern Division, prosecutors outlined what they said were aggravating factors warranting a death sentence for Arnold. They said he was previously convicted of a violent felony involving a firearm, created a grave risk of death to multiple people, tried to kill more than one person in a single episode and had substantially planned his actions. They also said Arnold “has demonstrated a lack of remorse.”
Arnold, who has pleaded not guilty, is one of several people identified by prosecutors as gang members and charged with racketeering, murder, attempted murder and assault charges. He appears to be the first to be notified that prosecutors will try to have him sentenced to death.
An attorney for Arnold declined to comment.
Michigan has no death penalty, abolishing it in 1846 and becoming the first state to discard the practice. However, federal authorities can still pursue death sentences under federal law even in states that have banned or halted executions under state law. As a result, though New York is among the 19 states without the death penalty, the Justice Department could still seek a death sentence for Saipov, the man accused of the New York City truck attack. Saipov, who has been accused of pledging loyalty to the Islamic State and charged with murder in the aid of a criminal enterprise, has also pleaded not guilty in his case.