Federal officials have charged alleged sniper John Muhammad under the provisions of the Hobbs Act, using a 1946 law aimed at crushing the organized crime rampant in that era to open an avenue to the death penalty.
The act classifies anyone who "obstructs, delays or affects [interstate] commerce ... by robbery or extortion or attempts or conspires so to do" as committing a federal crime.
A note believed left by the sniper at the scene of a Virginia shooting demanded $10 million and interstate commerce was interrupted by, among other things, traffic jams created as police searched for the killer.
The broad language of the act allows the federal government to step into a wide variety of criminal cases that would otherwise be decided at the local level.
State and local authorities often welcome such intervention, said law professor Daniel Richman of Fordham University, because it comes with extra funds, more staff and tougher penalties.
The U.S. government is also much less likely to compromise on plea bargains, said Richman. "Federal prosecutors aren't so overwhelmed that they have to accept lower sentences."
Some recent Hobbs applications have strayed far from its original intent of clamping down on the postwar expansion of mob activities across the nation.
On Monday, a sharply divided federal appeals court ruled that the Hobbs Act could be used to convict a man who held up four convenience stores in Fort Worth, Texas.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' rulings were highly unusual. The eight judges who voted to uphold James McFarland Jr.'s conviction did not write an opinion; the eight dissenters wrote two, totaling 86 pages.
Prosecutors in Hawaii used the Hobbs act in April to charge three men who allegedly hijacked pizza delivery trucks. They argued that robbing three national pizza company chains constituted a disruption of interstate commerce.
Hobbs Act violations normally carry penalties of no more than 20 years, but another 1994 statute mandates the death penalty when death results from the commission of a federal crime.
Attorney General John Ashcroft has made it clear he wants Muhammad to face capital charges, and Hobbs may have been the federal government's clearest avenue to the death penalty.
"I believe the ultimate sanction ought to be available here," Ashcroft told reporters. "I consider the matters charged ... to be atrocities."
There has been only one other death penalty prosecution under the Hobbs Act, in Kansas in 1996, when a man was convicted of the murder of a Chinese restaurant owner two years earlier. Jurors recommended the death penalty based on prosecution arguments that the restaurant's purchase of goods from out of state made the murder an attack on interstate commerce. A higher court threw out the recommendation in 2000.