Original Crime and the Federal Death Penalty in Non-Death Penalty States

May 6th, 2011

Michael Mannheimer has a post at PrawfsBlawg about an interesting intersection of federal and state criminal law that I did not consider–what happens when the Feds seek the death penalty for a crime entirely committed in a state that does not have the death penalty?

He tells the story of the case of US v. Michael Jacques:

Jacques is accused of luring his twelve-year old niece to his house, then kidnapping, raping, and killing her.  This took place entirely within Vermont, which has no death penalty, but the federal government is bringing the prosecution under the Federal Kidnapping Act..

Why is a kidnapping that took place entirely within one state considered a federal crime?

Before 2006, this would not have been a federal offense.  The FKA was amended that year to cover not only kidnappings that cross State lines, but also those where the actor “uses the mail or any means, facility, or instrumentality of interstate or foreign commerce in committing or in furtherance of the commission of the offense.”  That Jacques allegedly used text messages to lure the victim and altered her MySpace page to try to cover his tracks — and perhaps even that he used an automobile to transport the victim — brings it within the FKA.  It seems pretty clear that the only federal interest here, if it can be called that, is that the death penalty is available under federal law but not Vermont law.

That is a rather attenuated nexus, as far as a federal interest. What makes this case even more interesting is that Vermont lacks the death penalty.

If Jacques is convicted and sentenced to death, he will join nine others in modern history who have been convicted and sentenced to death by the federal government for crimes occurring in non-death States.  (Three had their convictions or sentences reversed on appeal; of those, two were re-sentenced to life without parole and one is currently scheduled to be re-sentenced).

Definitely some interesting federalism and enumerated power debates here.