Saipov and the federal death penalty

The Government has filed a formal criminal complaint in the case of Sayfullo Saipov, who allegedly killed eight people and injured about a dozen more on Halloween by driving his truck through a bike lane in New York City.  Although this is not an indictment, and the indictment could include additional statutory violations, the complaint focuses on one of the material support for terrorism statutes (18 U.S.C. 2339B) and the motor vehicles statute (18 U.S.C. 33).  Interestingly, the complaint also alleges a violation of section 34.  That is critical, because although the material support statutes do not provide for the death penalty, section 34 explicitly does, and here the violation of section 33 resulted in the death of a person.

Based on this, and what will almost surely appear in a future indictment, there seems to be a very high probability that the Government will seek the death penalty against Saipov.  In fact, now, I would say that it is almost certain.

Yesterday, the President tweeted that Saipov “SHOULD GET THE DEATH PENALTY.”  The President then tweeted again today about Saipov’s case, “Should move fast. DEATH PENALTY!”  (Politico has analysis here).  That is a sentiment shared by many, and under ordinary circumstances, it would be an unremarkable assertion in a terrorism case involving so many killings.  The problem, however, is that the President is not supposed to be the guy at the end of the bar.  The President oversees the federal prosecutorial infrastructure and the very people who must make the decision of whether to seek the death penalty against Saipov.  Why is that a problem?  Here is why, and it’s different than the concerns others have raised.

The federal death penalty is (or, at least should be) a point of pride for the Justice Department.  It is not used often, but when it is used, it tends to be reserved for truly heinous and highly aggravated killings.  And the Saipov case, based on what is currently known, looks to fit that bill.  Moreover, the federal death penalty provides substantial process to ensure that the decision whether to seek the death penalty is fair and objective, based on a variety of relevant factors.  Federal capital defendants receive learned counsel, and per the DOJ’s death penalty protocol, they have the opportunity to make a presentation (through counsel) to DOJ officials who review the United States Attorney’s submission of the case.  The process is not rushed, nor is it arbitrary.  Some cases, though death-eligible, may not be sufficiently aggravated to warrant a decision to seek; and even in a highly aggravated case, the Attorney General may decide not to seek because of substantial mitigating evidence, including mental state evidence.  The Department goes to great lengths to ensure that the threshold seek/no seek decision is deliberate, informed, and fair.

By stating his insistence upon a death penalty for Saipov, however, the President may be sending a signal to General Sessions that Sessions must authorize a capital prosecution, regardless of the mitigating evidence (if any).  Now, it is likely that Sessions would be inclined to seek in this case anyway, and from all public accounts of the alleged offense, it would seem to fit the mold of a federal death penalty case — highly aggravated, implicating national government interests, with minimal persuasive mitigation.  But the whole point of the protocol review process is to vet the case and determine whether the death penalty is appropriate, in light of the facts and circumstances of the individual case.

In other words, my fear is that the President has given Sessions little room on the “no seek” side of the decision-making process.  This is particularly true for Sessions, who has been publicly humiliated by the President in recent months and who functions in a world where public disagreement with — indeed, failure to worship — the President is treated as a great sin.  One might reasonably ask whether Sessions feels that he is in any position to take a different side from the President on anything.

My even greater fear is that Saipov’s lawyers will challenge the fairness and legitimacy of the review process by claiming that the fix was in and that once the President tweeted, Saipov never stood a real chance of avoiding the death penalty because the Attorney General’s hands were politically tied.  While capital defendants ordinarily do not challenge the process by which the seek decision was made, I am concerned that the President may be inviting new litigation about that process.  That is unfortunate, and unfair to the career prosecutors, as well as political appointees at Justice, acting in good faith to apply the protocol and make sound decisions in very ugly, and often complex, cases.  It is especially unfortunate in a case where the President’s sentiment was wholly unnecessary — the Attorney General may already have been inclined to favor the death penalty without prompting by the President.

I don’t want to overstate the concern.  Perhaps the President’s tweets will not matter in the Saipov case, and perhaps the legitimacy of the decision-making process will not be challenged.  After all, as I have said, it is not as if this would be a weak case for the death penalty in the absence of the President’s tweets.  Still, the President’s tweets — however satisfying to his political base — could be perceived as influencing the Justice Department’s ability give the case an objective review, and have the effect of compromising the integrity of a process that is designed to be serious, sober, thorough, and independent.  In death penalty decision-making, those are virtues more important than speed.

Given the pressures facing the death penalty in America, it is critical that the federal system be perceived as fair and just, rather than merely efficient or fast.  For those of us trying to preserve the death penalty, and its image in American law and politics, the President is making things much harder.