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PATRIOT Act Extension Bill Would Also Expand Death Penalty Laws

March 21, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Since the mid 90s, federal death penalty statutes have been slowly but steadily expanding to include more and more offenses within their reach. With the committee-amended PATRIOT Act reauthorization bill that’s headed for floor votes in the next few weeks, Congress appears ready to expand the death penalty once again. This time, they’re looking at applying the death penalty to people convicted of providing material support for acts of terrorism that result in deaths.

The language was added to the bill during the March 10 mark-up session as an amendment from Judiciary Committee member Sen. Chuck Grassley [R, IA] (pictured) over opposition from the committee’s chairman, Sen. Pat Leahy [D, VT]. Leahy said that he was not opposed to the amendment on principle, but that he believed it went too far beyond the scope of the underlying legislation. “This is a surveillance bill […] not a criminal code bill,” Leahy argued. Grassley was ultimately able to overcome Leahy’s opposition when Sen. Dianne Feinstein [D, CA] and Sen. Charles Schumer [D, NY] crossed the aisle to vote with the Republicans against a Leahy motion to table the amendment. Sen. Herbert Kohl [D, WI] abstained from voting. After the motion to table was rejected, the amendment was agreed to by a voice vote.

And so now in the PATRIOT Act extension bill, on the second-to-last page, is Grassley’s death penalty language:


(a) Participation in Nuclear and Weapons of Mass Destruction Threats to the United States-Section 832© of title 18, United States Code, is amended by inserting ‘punished by death if death results to any person from the offense, or’ after ‘shall be’.

(b) Missile Systems to Destroy Aircraft-Section 2332g©(3) of title 18, United States Code, is amended by inserting ‘punished by death or’ after ‘shall be’.

© Atomic Weapons- The last sentence of section 222 b. of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (42 U.S.C. 2272) is amended by inserting ‘death or’ before ‘imprisonment for life’ the last place it appears.

(d) Radiological Dispersal Devices-Section 2332h©(3) of title 18, United States Code, is amended by inserting ‘death or’ before ‘imprisonment for life’.

(e) Variola Virus-Section 175c©(3) of title 18, United States Code, is amended by inserting ‘death or’ before ‘imprisonment for life’.

As Grassley explains, the language would apply the death penalty to crimes “including participating in, or providing material support to, developing, using, or threatening to use a nuclear weapon; producing or using a missile to destroy an aircraft; using or threatening to use atomic weapons; using a dirty bomb, or radiological dispersal device; and producing or using a virus.”

Within the realm of the existing capital punishment laws, this is hardly a controversial expansion. Still, when we’re dealing with an area do the law as sensitive and contentious as the death penalty, you expect to have hearings and an extended debate to gather input from experts on all sides. Instead this has been dropped in a tangentially-related bill and will be overshadowed by the many more controversial provisions of PATRIOT Act surveillance laws.

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