Executions in Drug Cases Authorized in 1994 Crime Law

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The execution of drug smugglers that President Trump advocates as part of his plan to combat the opioid crisis is already legal under a 1994 law passed at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic, Politico reports. Federal prosecutors have never used it. The 1994 death penalty statute was part of a clampdown on drug dealers in response to the crack epidemic, linked to a surge of crime and violence in the 1980s and 1990s. Many prosecutors believed it would violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, said criminologist Ojmarrh Mitchell of the University of South Florida. “In the absence of a direct link to a death, the constitutionality of death penalty prosecution is shaky at best,” said Ohio State law Prof. Douglas Berman.

The 1994 statute authorizes capital punishment against people who direct a continuing criminal enterprise involving either large quantities of drugs or generate $20 million a year from the enterprise. It includes 20-year mandatory minimum sentences for drug sales that result in overdose deaths. At least 20 states have “drug-induced homicide” laws, which increasingly are used to prosecute opioid dealers whose drug sales result in accidental deaths. In as many as half of the state homicide-by-drugs cases, the accused dealer is also the wife, husband, parent or friend of the victim, and also an addict. Often,  user and dealer are one and the same, and neither knows the specific drug substances in play. “The evil villain in this story is very hard to find,” said John Roman of NORC at the University of Chicago. “The people who are convenient for arrest for the most part aren’t that evil villain.” In a 2008 case, the Supreme Court effectively removed drug smuggling as a capital crime, said Berman. “It has never been pursued, and if it were pursued with Trump’s urging, there would be extensive litigation that would go to the Supreme Court.”

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