Setting up: A television network crew prepares for the Timothy McVeigh execution the day before on June 10, 2001 on the grounds of the Federal Correctional Complex.  Staff file photo by Joseph C. Garza

Setting up: A television network crew prepares for the Timothy McVeigh execution the day before on June 10, 2001 on the grounds of the Federal Correctional Complex. Staff file photo by Joseph C. Garza JOSEPH C. GARZA
Most folks living around Terre Haute know that a series of executions have been scheduled to take place at the local federal prison next week.

It’s a reality of being the site of the nation’s only federal execution chamber, located within the Terre Haute Federal Correctional Complex. Nearly 700 people work at the penitentiary, so despite its secluded setting on the city’s southwest side, its presence and impact on the economy is recognized by the community. Residents may seldom notice the 1,145-acre facility, unless they drive by, but they know it’s there.

Anyone who’s lived here through the 21st century likely remembers, too, the attention surrounding the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in 2001.

Perhaps less understood is the basis of the federal death penalty itself and what distinguishes such cases from state death penalty cases. Use of the federal death penalty is rare. McVeigh’s execution and two others at Terre Haute in 2001 and 2003 mark the only federal executions since 1963.

“There’s a misconception that the American public has about the federal death penalty,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

“They think of it as being reserved for cases like terrorism, killings of government officials, murders on federal lands,” Dunham added in a phone interview Wednesday.

“But really, this statute is so broadly written that it encompasses murders that are traditionally handled by the state courts. And, so, who ends up on federal death row is largely arbitrary. It’s a function of the views and policies of the local U.S. attorneys and whoever the U.S. Attorney General happens to be at the time.”

A case such as McVeigh’s represents “a clear federal interest. It was both terrorism and it was federal property,” Dunham said. Indeed, McVeigh detonated a rental truck full of explosives, after parking it in front of the Murrah Federal Building at Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. His actions killed 168 people, including children, and remains the worst incident of domestic terrorism in U.S. history. McVeigh was executed under the federal death penalty law.

The Death Penalty Information Center has provided background and analysis to the public and journalists since 1990. DPIC takes no position for or against the death penalty, but is critical of the way it’s administered.

That criticism includes U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr’s Justice Department restart of federal executions after a 17-year hiatus, as well as the broadening of the federal death penalty through 1994’s Federal Death Penalty Act. That law expanded the number of eligible offenses for the federal death penalty to about 60. Many current federal death penalty cases, including those involved in the executions scheduled for next week, are now similar to those handled by the states, Dunham said.

All are reprehensible crimes involving the murders of children. Facing execution next week at Terre Haute for such heinous acts and others are Daniel Lee (convicted in Arkansas), Wesley Ira Purkey (Kansas) and Dustin Lee Honken (Iowa), as well as Keith Dwayne Nelson (Kansas) in August.

“People who kill children are not sympathetic figures. Killing a child is horrific,” Dunham said. “And that is why people who harm children face harsher punishment in state court than people who harm most other victims. But that’s a state interest.”

The 1994 law broadened the federal death penalty beyond its narrower past profile. The cases chosen for this summer’s executions reflect that expansion beyond acts such as terrorism, crimes against federal authorities, murders on federal lands and killings involving transporting victims across state lines.

“There’s no principled basis to distinguish them from the hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of similar murders that are regularly handled by the state courts,” Dunham said.

Barr and the Justice Department have been criticized for using a restart of federal executions for political appeal to President Trump’s base in his reelection campaign, including the types of cases chosen and their scheduling. Dunham senses political influences from the Trump administration, too.

Barr and the Justice Department announced the resumption of federal executions on June 27, 2019, the morning after former special counsel Robert Mueller concluded his high-profile testimony before Congress on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and questions of collusion by Trump. The unexpected restart of federal executions briefly diverted public attention from the Mueller probe.

Likewise, the cases chosen for the restart of federal executions — delayed from last winter by judicial actions — “appear to be selected to inflame the American public,” Dunham said. All are white, including a white supremacist, and all were convicted in the deaths of kids.

The group doesn’t reflect the actual demographic makeup of the federal death row, Dunham pointed out. Thirty-five of the 62 prisoners on federal death row are minorities and nearly half (28) come from just three states — Texas, Virginia and Missouri.

DPIC also questions why a resumption of executions — if intended to be done objectively — wouldn’t start with the prisoners who’ve been on death row the longest. That’s not the case with prisoners chosen for these executions.

And, on top of other questionable elements to the process, forging ahead with the executions amid a coronavirus pandemic could expose families, corrections employees, legal teams and journalists from across the nation with the rapidly spreading disease, Dunham said. After 17 years, a postponement — at least, until after COVID-19 is under control — should not be a problem, he said.

A lawsuit filed by the victims’ family in the Lee case argued that very point and yielded a federal judge’s ruling late Friday to delay that execution. Barr and the DOJ are challenging that ruling.

Barr has denied that political interests influenced the resumption of executions after 17 years or their timing amid a presidential campaign. “The American people, acting through Congress and Presidents of both political parties, have long instructed that defendants convicted of the most heinous crimes should be subject to a sentence of death,” Barr said in a Justice Department statement.

Dunham anticipates the next Congress will assess the federal death penalty on a long-term basis.

”I think that Congress needs to take a closer look at the federal death penalty to insure that if there’s going to be a federal death penalty that it’s narrowly tailored to offenses that Congress believes are truly federal interests,” Dunham said.
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