For the second time this year, a Federal District Court Judge has found the death penalty unconstitutional. Judge William Sessions' decision arrives at that ruling in a unique manner, taking a look at the presentation of charges in an indictment to the grand jury. The opinion (pdf) considers the rights of the defendant during the grand jury phase of a capital case.
The earlier federal District Court decision this year declared that capital punishment itself is unconstitutional. And, Arizona vs. Ring, before the US Supreme Court a few months ago, involved the sentencing aspect of a death penalty case. This case is distinquished from those because it looks at what might be required during grand jury proceedings:
Fell's lawyer, Alexander Bunin, called the ruling a landmark that could jeopardize cases against every defendant facing the death penalty, including that of Sept. 11 conspiracy suspect Zacarias Moussaoui.Other federal judges in Pennsylvania and Virginia have upheld the constitutionality of the Federal Death Penalty Act earlier this year.
Paul Martinek, editor of Lawyers Weekly USA, said a higher court will have to agree with Sessions before that happens.
But Martinek added, "The intellectual implications for influencing what other judges might do, potentially influencing what the Second Circuit (Court of Appeals) and maybe the Supreme Court might do, are pretty big. It's a new idea about how to challenge the federal death penalty.''