Department of Justice prosecutors confirmed they are seeking death penalties for two alleged murderers Monday in one of the first signs of Attorney General Jeff Sessions ramping up support for capital punishment.
Sessions’ DOJ began pursuing a death penalty Monday against Billy Arnold, who is charged with murdering two rival gang members in Detroit. The move comes weeks after Sessions cleared prosecutors to pursue a death penalty for the first time on Dec. 19 against Jarvis Wayne Madison, who is charged with stalking and murdering his estranged wife in 2016, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday.
Counter to Sessions’ uptick in death penalty prosecutions, however, is the nation’s opinion of capital punishment itself. An October Gallup poll found that support for the death penalty was at its lowest since 1972, when the punishment was briefly banned as unconstitutional.
Sessions has called capital punishment a “valuable tool in the tool belt,” according to the WSJ, but the AG had proven reluctant to use it until now. Sessions’ decision to levy the penalty against Arnold is particularly revealing, as more lenient administrations tend to forgo the death penalty when murder victims were themselves involved in criminal activity when they died.
Still, President Donald Trump’s administration expects to seek more death penalties than former-President Barack Obama’s administration, an unnamed senior DOJ official told WSJ. Obama’s DOJ sought federal death penalties in at least four dozen cases between 2008 and 2016.
The federal government has long proven less willing to execute inmates than state governments, however. The most recent federal execution took place in 2003 against Louis Jones, who was convicted of kidnapping an murdering 19-year-old Army Pvt. Tracie McBride. In contrast, states executed 23 inmates in 2017 alone. The reluctance plays out on federal death row as well, where just 61 inmates are being held, compared to more than 2,800 on death rows across the country.
Sessions is likely to seek a third death penalty against NYC terrorist Sayfullo Saipov, who is accused of driving a truck down a Manhattan bike path in October, killing 8 and wounding a dozen more.
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