U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff said the "death calculus" of capital punishment showed too many innocent people were killed before they could be vindicated. The system "is tantamount to foreseeable, state-sponsored murder of innocent human beings," ruled the judge, who warned prosecutors in April that he was considering such a dramatic legal move.
Rakoff is the first federal judge to declare the 1994 Death Penalty Act unconstitutional, although the decision will likely be appealed. Monday's ruling would not affect individual states' death penalty statutes.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney James Comey had argued the current law is appropriate because the Supreme Court had determined the Constitution does not guarantee perfect or infallible verdicts.
Rakoff disagreed, finding "the best available evidence indicates that, on the one hand, innocent people are sentenced to death with materially greater frequency than was previously supposed and ... convincing proof of their innocence often does not emerge until long after their convictions."
In response, Comey's office again insisted the death penalty is constitutional. "In light of Judge Rakoff's decision, we are considering our appellate options," said Comey's spokesman,Herb Hadad.
Rakoff based his findings on a number of recent studies of death penalty cases handled by state courts. The judge said he used those studies because the number of federal death sentences - 31 - was too small to draw conclusions.
Prosecutors argued that the much smaller group of federal death row inmates had greater legal protections than state court defendants, but the judge found the opposite was true, because rules of evidence in federal court are more favorable to law enforcement. "There is no good reason to believe the federal system will be any more successful at avoiding mistaken impositions of the death penalty than the error-prone state systems already exposed," Rakoff wrote.
Rakoff found that DNA and other types of evidence - often collected decades after the crime - exonerated dozens of individuals who would have been executed otherwise The decision also noted that new evidence has freed other inmates who weren't on death row but might never have had the chance to walk out of prison if they'd faced capital punishment.
The judge's ruling came during pre-trial arguments in the case of Alan Quinones and Diego Rodriguez, alleged partners in a heroin ring. They are accused of hog-tying, torturing, and killing informant Edwin Santiago on June 27, 1999. Defense lawyer Gerald Shargel, who represented another New York City man in a capital trial, hailed Rakoff's ruling as "enormously bold but obviously correct."
The 1994 Federal Death Penalty Act allows capital punishment for murder to benefit a drug-dealing conspiracy, murder of a witness, murder in aid of racketeering, and terrorist murder. Only two people, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and drug killer Juan Garza, have been executed under the law. Twenty-nine others have been sentenced to death, but five of those sentences were reversed.