NEW YORK – A federal appeals court Tuesday reversed a lower court ruling that found the federal death penalty unconstitutional.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court prohibits it from upholding the ruling. The lower court ruling was issued earlier this year by Judge Jed S. Rakoff in a case involving two men charged in a drug-murder conspiracy.
Rakoff said in July that the federal death penalty law as it was written "denies due process and, indeed, is tantamount to foreseeable, state-sponsored murder of innocent human beings."
Rakoff ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional because too many innocent people have been executed before they could be exonerated.
In a 35-page decision, the appeals court said the argument "that execution deprives individuals of the opportunity for exoneration is not new at all — it repeatedly has been made to the Supreme Court and rejected by the Supreme Court."
"There is no fundamental right to a continued opportunity for exoneration throughout the course of one's natural life," the appeals panel in Manhattan said. The three-judge panel ruled unanimously.
The federal death penalty is separate from state laws. Thirty-eight states allow capital punishment, although some have not executed anyone for many years. The governors of Illinois and Maryland have placed moratoriums on executions in their states.
In his ruling, Rakoff had said he based his findings on studies of state death penalty cases, because the number of federal death sentences — 31 — was too small to draw any conclusions.
The appeals court noted that since 1878 the Supreme Court has upheld death penalty statutes based upon the Constitution's Due Process Clause and the Eighth Amendment.
In 1972, it said, the Supreme Court first expressly acknowledged the argument that capital punishment might deprive innocent persons of the ability to exonerate themselves.
In that case, "Furman vs. Georgia," all nine justices found that application of a particular state death penalty statute was so arbitrary that it violated the Eighth Amendment, yet only two members of the court were willing to hold the death penalty unconstitutional, the appeals court said.
"And, although the argument before us today was squarely before the court in Furman, only Justice (Thurgood) Marshall indicated any possibility that this argument, standing alone, might be sufficient to render the death penalty unconstitutional," the 2nd Circuit added.
Rakoff had ruled during the pretrial phase of the case of Alan Quinones and Diego Rodriguez, alleged partners in a heroin ring. They are accused of torturing and killing informant Edwin Santiago in 1999 and have pleaded innocent.
A telephone message left with a lawyer for defendants in the case in which Rakoff ruled was not immediately returned.