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Patriot Act bill would expand death penalty

Dan Eggen/Washington Post | October 26 2005

WASHINGTON – The House bill that would reauthorize the USA Patriot Act anti-terrorism law includes several little-noticed provisions that would dramatically transform the federal death penalty system, allowing smaller juries to decide on executions and giving prosecutors the ability to try again if a jury deadlocks on sentencing.

The bill also triples the number of terrorism-related crimes eligible for the death penalty, adding, among others, the material support law that has been the core of the government’s legal strategy against terrorism.

The death penalty provisions, which were added to the House bill during a voice vote in July, are emerging as one of the major points of contention between House and Senate negotiators as they begin work on a compromise bill to renew expiring portions of the Patriot Act. If approved, the provisions could have a significant effect on future Justice Department terrorism prosecutions.

The Senate version of the bill does not include the death penalty expansions. Senate Democrats argue that the proposals are extraneous to the Patriot Act and should not be approved without fuller debate. Death penalty opponents and defense attorneys also contend that the measures would increase the risk that innocent people could be executed by removing some of the safeguards now in place.

The Justice Department has endorsed the provisions and a spokesman for House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., said Tuesday that the proposals were viewed as relatively uncontroversial because they were approved overwhelmingly on the House floor.

A Republican staffer on the Senate Judiciary Committee said the death penalty issue was “one of several concerns” about the House bill, which also includes fewer restrictions on surveillance and search powers than the Senate version.

Under the proposals, 41 new crimes would be added to the 20 terrorism-related offenses now eligible for the federal death penalty. Prosecutors would also find it easier to impose a death sentence in cases in which the defendant did not have the intent to kill.

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