Another Blow To The Machinery Of Death

By: Doug Lee

In September, U.S. District Judge William Sessions ruled that the federal death penalty was unconstitutional--the second time in only two months that a federal judge has made the same declaration.

Sessions, a federal district judge in Burlington, Vt., stated that the federal death penalty law doesn’t adequately protect the rights of capital defendants. "Due process of law and the fair trial guarantees of the Sixth Amendment require that standards and safeguards governing the kinds of evidence juries may consider must be rigorous, and constitutional rights and liberties scrupulously protected," said Sessions. "To relax those standards invited abuse, and significantly undermines the reliability of decisions to impose the death penalty," he said.

Sessions’ ruling came in the case of Donald Fell, who was not allowed to introduce a confession by his alleged accomplice, Robert Lee. Prosecutors would not allow Lee’s confession to be admitted into court evidence because he had killed himself in prison.

For now, the ruling only affects Fell’s case, but it could have implications for all defendants facing the federal death penalty. More than that, Sessions’ decision is the latest in a series of rulings showcasing the unreliable nature of capital punishment. In July, U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff of Manhattan became the first judge to declare the federal death penalty unconstitutional. Before that, the U.S. Supreme Court banned the execution of the mentally retarded and struck down the death penalty in several states where judges, not juries, imposed death sentences.

Sessions’ ruling is another blow to the machinery of death. As a result of pressure from anti-death penalty activists, both Illinois and Maryland have imposed moratoriums on executions. The death penalty is an antiquated law that needs to be eliminated. But some politicians continue to defend a death penalty system that is so clearly broken. Activists must continue to apply pressure to abolish a system that victimizes the poor and people of color.