NEW YORK – The federal death penalty was declared unconstitutional Monday by a judge who said too many innocent people have been executed before they could be vindicated.
U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff is the first federal judge to declare the 1994 Death Penalty Act unconstitutional, said Lee Ginsberg, lawyer for one of the defendants whose case led to the decision. Monday's ruling would not affect individual states' death penalty statutes.
The federal government was expected to appeal the ruling, which came in the case of two alleged drug dealers accused of killing an informant.
"In light of Judge Rakoff's decision, we are considering our appellate options," said Herb Hadad, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney James Comey.
Rakoff, who warned prosecutors in April that he was considering the move, said in his 28-page ruling that the law violated the due process rights of defendants. Prosecutors argued the Supreme Court already has concluded that the Constitution's due process safeguards do not guarantee perfect or infallible outcomes.
Rakoff found that 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 that, on the other hand, convincing proof of their innocence often does not emerge until long after their convictions."
He based his findings on a number of studies of state death penalty cases. He said he used those studies because the number of federal death sentences — 31 — was too small to draw any conclusions.
Only two people, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and drug killer Juan Garza, have been executed under the federal law. Of the remaining 29, five were reversed. The government said none of the 31 defendants was later found to be innocent.
Prosecutors had argued that federal death row inmates had greater legal protections than state court defendants, but the judge found the opposite was true because the 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.
Justice Department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock criticized the ruling.
"The determination of how to punish criminal activity within the limits of the Constitution is a matter entrusted to the democratically elected legislature, not to the federal judiciary," Comstock said in Washington. "Congress passed the Federal Death Penalty Act to save lives, and the Supreme Court has repeatedly said the death penalty is constitutional."
One death penalty advocacy group quickly attacked the decision.
"The premises he used were false, therefore his conclusions were false," said Dudley Sharp of Justice For All. "It is astounding that he would make judgments based on those studies ... which have so many errors and inaccuracies in them."
Lawyer Gerald Shargel, who has represented clients in capital trial, hailed Rakoff's ruling as "enormously bold but obviously correct."
"We've learned that with disturbing frequency innocent people have faced execution," Shargel said.
The judge's ruling came during pretrial arguments in the case of Alan Quinones and Diego Rodriguez, alleged partners in a Bronx heroin ring. They are accused of torturing, and killing informant Edwin Santiago on June 27, 1999.
Rakoff had indicated in April that he was considering declaring the federal death penalty unconstitutional and had given prosecutors one last chance to persuade him otherwise before he ruled on a pretrial defense motion to find the statute unconstitutional.
Prosecutors urged the judge to resist ruling on the issue at all until after the scheduled Sept. 2 trial of Quinones and Rodriguez.