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Federal Death Penalty Case in a No-Death-Penalty State

Filed under: Law — DRJ @ 9:44 pm

[Headline from DRJ]

AP News reports that federal prosecutors are trying a death penalty case in Illinois, apparently because the State is no longer seeking the death penalty in any case:

The federal death-penalty case is the first in Illinois since the state struck capital punishment from its books on grounds death-penalty processes were too error-prone. Some Illinois anti-death penalty activists criticized what they said was the federal government’s imposition of a death-penalty case on a non-death penalty state.

When he first stepped up to the podium Christensen’s lawyer, George Tesseff, told jurors he would begin his remarks with what he realized was an unusual admission for an attorney about his client: “Brendt Christensen killed Yingying Zhang,” he said.

Without explaining in detail, Tesseff said Christensen was responsible because he “is on trial for his life,” alluding to the possibility of a death sentence.


24 Responses to “Federal Death Penalty Case in a No-Death-Penalty State”

  1. Some Illinois anti-death penalty activists criticized what they said was the federal government’s imposition of a death-penalty case on a non-death penalty state.

    The federal government isn’t requiring the Illinois state courts to “impose” capital punishment, or to offer that as an alternative for state prosecutors, in a state-court prosecution under state law. Illinois can declare that under its law, this is no crime at all; that doesn’t affect the parallel (but independent) federal law. So the phrase “imposition of a death penalty case on a non-death penalty state” is a piece of nonsense carefully crafted to mislead the already confused and the easily misled — extremely disingenuous. There are indeed opponents of the death penalty who confine themselves to good faith arguments, but this is not a good faith argument.

    There is zero doubt that the federal government can prosecute a federal capital case based on federal law. A check of PACER confirms that’s exactly what this is:

    On or about 6/9/17 in Champaign County, IL, defendant did unlawfully kidnap the victim and in committing the offense used means of interstate and foreign commerce in violation of 18 USC 1201.

    Here’s a link to 18 U.S.C. § 1201, the federal criminal statute in question.

    PACER also shows that the defendant’s lawyers filed a motion on August 24, 2018, entitled “MOTION to Declare the Federal Death Penalty Act Unconstitutional as Applied on the Ground that the Facts of this Case, Coupled with the Sovereign Decision of the State of Illinois to Abolish Capital Punishment, Demonstrate that its Application Here Violates the Tenth Amendment and Principles of Federalism of the Constitution of the United States.” It’s fair to say that the title of this motion, by itself, would induce skepticism in most federal trial judges.

    The feds filed a comprehensive response in opposition on October 16, 2018. The trial judge denied the defense motion in a five-page written opinion on January 14, 2019. The AP ought to have mentioned that, I think.

    Beldar (fa637a)

  2. The victim is very sympathetic while the defendant is not, and the facts are terrible. Still, I don’t think the federal government would have prosecuted just because of the death penalty if the victim had not been foreign. I imagine this case has received attention in China because of all the Chinese sons and daughters studying in that area and in the US.

    DRJ (15874d)

  3. A texas judge gave a man 6 months for killing a man and another man 5 years for stealing a car. when his lawyer asked why the killer got less time the judge said I know a lot a men who need killing I don’t know of any cars that need stealing.

    lany (3d5f5f)

  4. Kidnapping has been a federal crime since 1932 — the legislation spurred by the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. In fact, the Federal Kidnapping Act (18 USC 1201) is commonly known as the Lindbergh Baby Law.

    nk (dbc370)

  5. Peoria and Urbana are both in the Central District of Illinois, BTW. Sixth Amendment venue is not affected by the location of the trial at the Peoria courthouse as opposed to the Urbana courthouse.

    nk (dbc370)

  6. Prosecuting someone in federal court because the state has no death penalty is nothing new – what’s new is a defense lawyer making a motion to have the case dismissed on the grounds that it is more properly prosecuted in state court, or could only be prosecuted,. because a state supposedly has the power to forbid certain punishments or, I suppose, legalize things altogether.

    Sammy Finkelman (9974e8)

  7. * …or could only be prosecuted in state court because if the federal government prosecuted a person for these alleged acts, they’d be undermine a state’s power not to punish.

    Of course the defense attorney would have this only to considered decisions to have state law officially set the penalty for all cases. Otherwise he’d be arguing againsat the use of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prosecute murders (albeit there there’s a lowe penalty).

    It’s really, really, an unsound argument.

    Selling marijuana, when legal under state law, may not be being prosecuted by the federal
    government, but that’s because of politics (Congress would be in an uuproar) and prosecurial discretion.

    Sammy Finkelman (9974e8)

  8. * …or could only be prosecuted in state court because if the federal government prosecuted a person for these alleged acts, they’d be undermine a state’s power not to punish.

    Never heard of a state having the power “not to punish” someone. States have the police power, which allows them to enact criminal laws punishing certain activities. They can, in their discretion, choose what to punish or how.

    The federal government, although it lacks the police power, has other powers that can include criminal prosecution. If the federal authorities decide to prosecute someone for violating federal law, there is no interference with the state’s prerogatives.

    This is simply the result of living in a federal system – you are subject to two levels of law.

    The argument is really silly, and in a civil case, would be sanctioned. (In a criminal case, defense lawyers have leeway to make any frivolous argument, since so much is at stake.)

    Bored Lawyer (998177)

  9. What’s the legal term where both the state and feds have dual jurisdiction of the same crime?

    So, as Beldar stated, the feds are well within their prerogative in this.

    On a personal note, I’m against capital punishment. Not because I don’t think certain criminals don’t deserve it… it’s that governance and justice is imperfect, such that we cannot be 100% sure of the verdict.

    whembly (51f28e)

  10. *I thinking of dual-sovereignty?

    whembly (51f28e)

  11. Just read the opinion denying the motion. The defendant also argued that

    the federal government is unconstitutionally commandeering the resources of the State of Illinois with regard to investigation and trial of this case and would unconstitutionally commandeer the resources of other States to carry out the death penalty if it is imposed.

    One, I cannot see how the federal govt. is commandeering anything here. (Is the federal govt. going to borrow Illinois’ electric chair? Or maybe now that Illinois has banned the death penalty, the feds can buy it cheap in a garage sale.)

    Two, why is that something the defendant has standing to challenge? If the State of Illinois feels its resources is being imposed upon, it will complain.

    Bored Lawyer (998177)

  12. I have been on a death penalty defense team. Paid and pro bono. No argument is too frivolous, too vexatious, too dilatory, too obstructive of the administration of justice, or too insane, if it will buy the defendant even one extra day of life. The courts also know it and tolerate it, issuing a simple denial where in other cases they would impose sanctions.

    nk (dbc370)

  13. The federal carjacking law (18 USC 2119) has been a great work-around for seeking more robust sentences than the wrist slaps the Cook County states attorney usually doles out.

    urbanleftbehind (5eecdb)

  14. Never heard of a state having the power “not to punish” someone. 

    Jussie Smollett?

    DRJ (15874d)

  15. Good point, ulb.

    DRJ (15874d)

  16. “Jussie Smollett?”

    You misunderstand. Of course the State has the power to decide whether anyone should be subject to criminal prosecution in its own courts.

    What it does not have the power is to decide that someone should never be punished by anyone.

    Illinois can let Smollett off for violating the criminal laws of Illinois. It cannot stop the feds or any other state from prosecuting him for any applicable criminal law.

    Bored Lawyer (998177)

  17. @DRJ – new possible headline?

    I like the analysis of these guys…

    whembly (51f28e)

  18. What it does not have the power is to decide that someone should never be punished by anyone.

    Arizona kind of did for a time by a loophole in its extradition law. If a person was extradited to Arizona by Arizona’s request, he had sanctuary. He could not be extradited to any other jurisdiction, since he had not fled that jurisdiction but had been brought to Arizona under duress. Once he resolved his Arizona charges (one way or another), he was free as a bird as long as he stayed in Arizona.

    Still, there was no sanctuary from federal charges. The federal government can pick you up anywhere in the United States (and other places too) and take you to the state and district of proper venue. No extradition required.

    nk (dbc370)

  19. What it does not have the power is to decide that someone should never be punished by anyone.

    True, but escaping state prosecution (in cases that are normally state law criminal matters) goes a long way to avoiding all prosecution, doesn’t it?

    DRJ (15874d)

  20. Interesting, whembly. Consider emailing your link to Patterico. I am not smart enough to take on eco posts. (I took it in college and immediately switched to liberal arts.)

    DRJ (15874d)

  21. @ nk (#5): Yup, plus the move was on the defendant’s motion for change of venue.

    Beldar (fa637a)

  22. I saw this story linked on The Pirate’s Cove.

    The feds may win a conviction and capital sentence, but the operative question is: if a capital sentence is imposed, will it actually be carried out?

    There are roughly 60 prisoners on death row for federal offenses, but there have been only three federal executions carried out since the restoration of capital punishment, the last in 2003.

    In Pennsylvania, there are many people sentenced to death, but there have been only three executions carried out since the restoration of capital punishment, and all three occurred because the convicted men voluntarily dropped their appeals. Governor Tom Corbett signed 47 death warrants during his four years in office, but not one man was executed. While federal prosecutors don’t run for their officers, in the Keystone State district attorneys used capital cases to prove how tough they were on crime, knowing full well that the condemned men would almost certainly never be executed. The current Governor, Tom Wolf, has put a moratorium on all executions; he does not have the authority to commute death sentences without a recommendation from the state Board of Pardons and Paroles.

    Kentucky has executed three men since the restoration of capital punishment, and two of them were ‘volunteers.’

    The odds are that Mr Christensen will die in prison . . . of old age. Given that he’s 29 now, that’s a long way away! Sometimes, it’s really not worth the bother of seeking a capital sentence.

    The pro-life Dana (e6d098)

  23. It’s a kinder, gentler America.

    nk (dbc370)

  24. While federal prosecutors don’t run for their officers

    But they have been known to resign and in due course run for office…

    Kishnevi (378575)

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