New bill would give federal prosecutors a second chance for death verdict

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Four U.S. Senators introduced a bill this week that would allow federal prosecutors in death penalty cases to impanel a second jury for sentencing if the first jury fails to reach a unanimous vote for death.

The senators, all Republicans, named the bill, “Eric’s Law,” for Eric Williams, a federal correctional officer in a Pennsylvania penitentiary, who was killed by a prisoner. The prisoner, who was already serving a life sentence, was given another life sentence because the jury could not reach a unanimous death verdict.

“Obviously, this bill would invite a lot of constitutional scrutiny,” says Thomas Carver, a Springfield, Missouri attorney who has represented defendants in four federal death penalty cases. “Additionally, it would add to the already enormous cost incurred in prosecuting federal death penalty cases, not to mention the years of appellate proceedings that would follow a death verdict under this procedure. At some point, legislators and the public must ask themselves whether the huge drain on the treasury is worth the pursuit of a death sentence.”

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the federal government (and 22 states) currently mandates an automatic life sentence if a jury cannot reach a unanimous vote for death. The senators say this new law would allow, but not require, prosecutors to impanel a second jury in these instances.

The four sponsors include Senators Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), and Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

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