Capital punishment by the United States federal government

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Capital punishment is a legal penalty under the United States federal government criminal justice system.

It can be imposed for treason, espionage, murder, large-scale drug trafficking, or attempted murder of a witness, juror, or court officer in certain cases.

As of 2020, all inmates currently under federal death sentences were condemned for aggravated murder. The U.S. federal government applies the death penalty in a few cases, the large majority of death sentences being imposed and carried out by state governments.[1]

The Federal Bureau of Prisons manages the housing and execution of federal death row prisoners. As of November 28, 2020, 54 offenders were on the federal death row, most of them at Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana.[2]


The Crimes Act of 1790 defined some capital offenses: treason, murder, robbery, piracy, mutiny, hostility against the United States, counterfeiting, and aiding the escape of a capital prisoner.[3] The first federal execution was that of Thomas Bird on June 25, 1790, due to his committing "murder on the high seas".[4]

The use of the death penalty in U.S. territories was handled by federal judges and the U.S. Marshal Service.

Historically, members of the U.S. Marshals Service conducted all federal executions.[4] Pre-Furman executions by the federal government were normally carried out within the prison system of the state in which the crime was committed. Only in cases where the crime was committed in a territory, the District of Columbia, or a state without the death penalty was it the norm for the court to designate the state in which the death penalty would be carried out, as the federal prison system did not have an execution facility.

The last pre-Furman federal execution took place on March 15, 1963, when Victor Feguer was executed for kidnapping and murder, after President John F. Kennedy denied clemency.

Capital punishment was halted in 1972 after the Furman v. Georgia decision but was once again permitted under the Gregg v. Georgia decision in 1976.

In the late 1980s, Senator Alfonse D'Amato, from New York State, sponsored a bill to make certain federal drug crimes eligible for the death penalty as he was frustrated by the lack of a death penalty in his home state.[5] The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 restored the death penalty under federal law for drug offenses and some types of murder.[6] President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, expanding the federal death penalty in 1994.[7] In response to the Oklahoma City bombing, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 was passed in 1996. Federal Correctional Complex, Terre Haute became the only federal prison to execute people and one of only three prisons to hold federally condemned people.

United States Penitentiary, Terre Haute, Indiana, the location of the federal death row for men and the federal execution chamber

The federal death penalty applies even in areas without a state death penalty since federal criminal law is the same for the entire country and is enforced by federal courts, rather than by state courts. From 1988 to October 2019, federal juries gave death sentences to eight convicts in places without a state death penalty when the crime was committed and tried.[8]

Timothy McVeigh was executed on June 11, 2001, for his involvement in the Oklahoma City bombing where 168 people were killed. It was the first federal execution since 1963; it was broadcast on a closed circuit-television to survivors and victims' families.[9]

As of November 28, 2020, there are 54 offenders on federal death row, most of them at Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana. The only woman on federal death row as of 2020, Lisa M. Montgomery, is held at Federal Medical Center, Carswell, in Fort Worth, Texas.[10] As of 2017, aside from those at Terre Haute, three male death row inmates are held at ADX Florence and one is held at Springfield MCFP.[11] Two people have been re-sentenced since 1976 to life in prison and three had their sentences commuted to life in prison: one by President Bill Clinton in 2001, and two in 2017 by President Barack Obama, who commuted one death sentence handed down by a federal district court and one another issued by a court-martial. Both Clinton and Obama issued the commutations a few days before leaving office.[12]

On July 25, 2019, U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced that the federal government would resume executions using pentobarbital, rather than the three-drug cocktail previously used. Five convicted death row inmates were scheduled to be executed in December 2019 and January 2020.[13]

On November 20, 2019, U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan issued a preliminary injunction preventing the resumption of federal executions. Plaintiffs in the case argued that the use of pentobarbital may violate the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994.[14] The injunction was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and, on December 6, 2019, by the United States Supreme Court, but it told the court of appeals to rule on the case "with appropriate dispatch". Justices Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanugh wrote that they believed the government would ultimately win the case and that they would have set a 60-day deadline for the court of appeals to finalize it.[15]

In January 2020, the Justice Department argued to the appeals court that when Congress declared that federal executions must be carried out "in the manner prescribed by the state" where inmates were convicted, it was referring to the general method of execution allowed in states, such as lethal injection, rather than the specific drugs to be used.[16]

Legal process[edit]


In the federal system, the final decision to seek the death penalty rests with the United States Attorney General. This differs from states, where local prosecutors have the final say with no involvement from the state attorney general.[17]

The sentence is decided by the jury and must be unanimous.

Sentences of death handed down by a jury cannot be rejected by the judge.[18]

In case of a hung jury during the penalty phase of the trial, a life sentence is issued, even if a single juror opposed death (there is no retrial).[19]

Appeals and clemency[edit]

While death row inmates sentenced by state governments may appeal to both state courts and federal courts, federal death row inmates have to appeal directly to federal courts.[20]

The power of clemency belongs to the President of the United States.

Capital offenses[edit]

Some male death row inmates are held at the Florence Administrative Maximum Facility

These are the offenses which may result in the death penalty under the United States Code:[21]

  • Causing death by using a chemical weapon or a weapon of mass destruction
  • Murder, kidnapping resulting in death, or conspiracy to kill resulting in death, of a member of the Congress, the Cabinet, or Supreme Court of the United States
  • Causing death by using an explosive
  • Causing death by using an illegal firearm
  • Causing death during a drug-related drive-by shooting
  • Genocide resulting in death
  • Carjacking resulting in death
  • Mailing explosive substances resulting in death
  • Willful destruction of aircraft or motor vehicles resulting in death
  • Causing death by aircraft hijacking or any attempt to commit aircraft hijacking
  • Causing death by kidnapping or hostage taking
  • First-degree murder within the special territorial and maritime jurisdiction of the United States:
    • Murder perpetrated by poison or lying in wait
    • Murder that is willful, deliberate, malicious, and premeditated
    • Murder in the perpetration of, or in the attempt to perpetrate, any arson, torture, escape, kidnapping, treason, espionage, sabotage, aggravated sexual abuse or sexual abuse, child abuse, burglary, or robbery
    • Murder perpetrated as part of a pattern or practice of assault or torture against a child or children
  • Murder committed by a federal prisoner or an escaped federal prisoner sentenced to 15 years to life or a more severe penalty
  • Murder of a court officer or juror
  • Murder with the intent of preventing testimony by, or retaliate against, a witness, victim, or informant
  • Murder, kidnapping resulting in death, or conspiracy to kill resulting in death, of the President of the United States, the Vice President, or a member of the presidential staff
  • Killing persons aiding federal investigations or State correctional officers
  • Willful wrecking of a train resulting in death
  • Sexual abuse resulting in death
  • Sexual exploitation of children resulting in death
  • Torture resulting in death
  • Death resulting from violence at an international civil airport
  • Murder of a U.S. national in an act of terrorism committed in another country
  • Death resulting from an act of terrorism transcending national boundaries
  • Death resulting from use of interstate commerce facilities in the commission or preparation of murder-for-hire
  • Crime against civil rights or conspiracy to do so, resulting in death, involving kidnapping, or involving rape
  • Attempting, authorizing or advising the killing of any officer, juror, or witness in cases involving a Continuing Criminal Enterprise, whether such killing occurs or not
  • Large-scale drug trafficking
  • Espionage
  • Treason


The method of execution of federal prisoners for offenses under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 is that of the state in which the conviction took place. If the state has no death penalty, the judge must select a state with the death penalty for carrying out the execution.[22]

The federal government has a facility and regulations only for executions by lethal injection, but the United States Code allows U.S. Marshals to use state facilities and employees for federal executions.[23][24]

Federal executions by lethal injection occur at United States Penitentiary, Terre Haute.[25][26]

Presidential assassins[edit]

Execution of George Atzerodt, David Herold, Lewis Powell, and Mary Surratt on July 7, 1865, at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C.
Executed convict Date of execution Method President Assassinated Under President
George Atzerodt July 7, 1865 hanging Abraham Lincoln Andrew Johnson
David Herold July 7, 1865 hanging Abraham Lincoln Andrew Johnson
Lewis Powell July 7, 1865 hanging Abraham Lincoln Andrew Johnson
Mary Surratt July 7, 1865 hanging Abraham Lincoln Andrew Johnson
Charles J. Guiteau June 30, 1882 hanging James A. Garfield Chester A. Arthur
Leon Czolgosz October 29, 1901 electrocution William McKinley Theodore Roosevelt

Four Presidents of the United States were murdered while in office. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln was tried by a military commission based on the military nature of the conspiracy. Charles Guiteau's trial was held in a civilian court of the District of Columbia where the assassination of James Garfield happened.

The assassin of William McKinley, Leon Czolgosz, was tried and executed for murder by New York state authorities. The accused assassin of John F. Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald, would presumably have been tried for murder by Texas state authorities had he not been killed two days later by Jack Ruby in the basement of the Dallas Municipal Building (then Dallas Police Department headquarters) while being transferred to the county jail. (Ruby himself was initially tried and convicted of murder in a Texas state court, but that was overturned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and he died before he could be retried.) Only after Kennedy's death was it made a federal crime to murder the President of the United States.

Military executions[edit]

The United States military has executed 135 people since 1916. The most recent person to be executed by the military is U.S. Army Private John A. Bennett, executed on April 13, 1961, for child rape and attempted murder. Since the end of the Civil War in 1865, only one person has been executed for a purely military offense: Private Eddie Slovik, who was executed on January 31, 1945, after being convicted of desertion.

While members of the Armed Forces are usually tried in courts-martial, military commissions can be used to try non-soldiers accused of violations of the law of war. The Military Commissions Act of 2009 was passed by Congress in order to try the five remaining suspects of the September 11 attacks that killed 2,977 people and injured over 25,000 others.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Torsten Ove and Chris Huffaker. "Death penalty cases rare in federal court; executions more rare". Retrieved November 14, 2019.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  2. ^ "List of Federal Death-Row Prisoners". Death Penalty information center. Retrieved 17 July 2020.
  3. ^ Crimes Act of 1790, ch. 9, §§ 1, 3, 8–10, 14, 23, 1 Stat. 112, 112–15, 117.
  4. ^ a b "History - Historical Federal Executions ." U.S. Marshals Service. Retrieved on July 20, 2016.
  5. ^ Greenblatt, Alan. "Death From Washington." Governing. May 2007. Retrieved on June 5, 2016.
  6. ^ (Pub.L. 100–690, 102 Stat. 4181, enacted November 18, 1988, H.R. 5210)
  7. ^ H.R. 3355, Pub.L. 103–322
  8. ^ "List of Federal Death-Row Prisoners". Retrieved November 12, 2019.
  9. ^ "The McVeigh Execution: Oklahoma City". Retrieved June 24, 2017.
  10. ^ "Lisa M Montgomery" (inmate entry), in the "Find an Inmate" inmate locator database, Federal Bureau of Prisons; accessible via search for BOP Register Number 11072-031. Retrieved October 29, 2018.
  11. ^ Trigg, Lisa (2017-04-29). "Time drags on at death row, USP Terre Haute". Tribune Star. Retrieved 2018-06-14.
  12. ^ "Obamas overlooked last-minute commutation lifts death sentence for disabled inmate". Archived from the original on September 20, 2017. Retrieved June 24, 2017.
  13. ^ "Federal Government to Resume Capital Punishment After Nearly Two Decade Lapse". The United States Department of Justice. 2019-07-25. Retrieved 2019-07-26.
  14. ^ "Judge Blocks Justice Department's Plan To Resume Federal Executions". Retrieved 2019-11-21.
  15. ^ "Supreme Court keeps federal executions on hold". NBC News. Retrieved 8 December 2019.
  16. ^
  17. ^ "U.S. Attorneys' Manual » Title 9: Criminal - 9-10.000 - Capital Crimes". Retrieved June 5, 2016.
  18. ^ 18 U.S.C. § 3594; see also the U.S. v. Henderson, 485 F.Supp.2d 831, 857 (S.D. Ohio 2007) (recognizing that jury's "recommendation" is binding on the court).
  19. ^ "Section 3594 - Imposition of a sentence of death". Retrieved June 5, 2016.
  20. ^ Potter, Kyle. "Dru Sjodin’s killer drags out death row delays ." Associated Press at the Twin Cities Pioneer Press. March 22, 2014. Retrieved on June 5, 2016.
  21. ^ Title 18 Chapter 228, U.S. Code
  22. ^ "§ 3594. Imposition of a sentence of death;". Retrieved November 12, 2019.
  23. ^ "§ 26.3 Date, time, place, and method of execution". Retrieved March 15, 2017.
  24. ^ "18 U.S. Code § 3597 - Use of State facilities". Retrieved March 15, 2017.
  25. ^ Peter Slevin. "Witnessing a federal execution". Retrieved November 12, 2019.
  26. ^ Kelley Czajka. "How does the federal death penalty work?". Retrieved November 12, 2019.

Further reading[edit]

Texts of relevant laws

External links[edit]