A dismal development in American legal culture over the past few years has been the nationalization of the death penalty. In 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court’s watershed ruling in Furman v. Georgia invalidated virtually all existing death penalty laws. During the next few years, 36 states revamped their laws to satisfy the Court’s new standards. But the federal government, stymied by opponents of capital punishment, did not reform its death penalty statutes for more than a decade, and then only minimally in 1988. Resistance on Capitol Hill finally gave way in 1994, however, leading to the Federal Death Penalty Act, which made the death sentence applicable to more than 40 federal offenses.

The reemergence of federal capital punishment has received relatively little attention. Perhaps that is because the federal government has not actually executed anyone since 1963. (By contrast, states have executed 548 individuals since 1976.) But the federal inaction will likely change soon. Twenty-one people now sit on federal death row, including Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma. Moreover, scores of additional defendants who are “eligible” for death sentences are awaiting trials or sentencing.

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