Although the federal death penalty has existed since the birth of the United States, it has been used sparingly until fairly recently. Most states passed new capital punishment statutes within a few years. However, whether there should be a federal death penalty remained a controversial issue, and Congress did not pass a capital punishment statute until 1988. The first federal execution since 1963 occurred in 2001 when Timothy McVeigh was put to death.
One of the questions raised about the federal death penalty is whether it subordinates state crime-control policies to those of the federal government, which is less attuned to local needs and norms. Most criminal convictions and almost all death sentences are the products of state law. New questions about the use of the federal death penalty were raised when studies by the Department of Justice indicated disturbing disparities along racial and geographic lines.
The federal death penalty differs from the death penalty at the state level in that the federal death penalty encompasses a variety of crimes beyond that of first degree murder, including terrorism and large-scale drug trafficking. The federal death penalty can also be applied within any state whether or not it has the death penalty, a fact that critics of the federal death penalty believe oversteps the boundary of states’ rights.
Most criminal convictions and almost all death sentences occur at the state level. When an offense falls under both state and federal jurisdictions, federal statutes supersede those of state governments. For example, if an individual in a state without the death penalty commits a federal capital crime, that defendant can still receive the death penalty under federal law, even though he could also be tried under state law where the most severe punishment is a life sentence. Some critics consider this an usurpation of states’ rights and possibly a violation of the “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibition of the Eighth...