Army Revises Death Penalty Rules

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The U.S. Army changes rules on capital punishment. Executions — rare in modern-day military annals, although more are in the works — could now be held outside Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Opponents fear executions in places far from the public eye.


The U.S. military is close to executing a service member for the first time in decades. Two death row inmates have used up their legal appeals. The Supreme Court affirmed their sentences and their lives will soon be in the hands of President Bush. On the rare occasions that the army conducts an execution it is expected to happen at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. But this week, the army changed its rules and it now allows executions elsewhere.

NPR's John Hendren reports on why the choice of location has become a serious issue for some.

JOHN HENDREN reporting:

The military has often meted out harsh justice during wartime. Soldiers were shot for desertion as recently as World War II but since then the armed services have been far less aggressive in seeking the death penalty than prosecutors in say Texas or Virginia.

The last time the military executed a killer in its ranks was in 1961 when Private John Bennett was hanged for the 1955 rape and attempted murder of an Austrian girl. The Supreme Court invalidated the death penalty in 1972 and reinstated it in non-military cases in 1976. It took the Pentagon until 1983 to reinstate executions for criminals in uniform. Eugene Fidell is the president of the National Institute for Military Justice, a non-profit group in Washington, D.C.

Mr. EUGENE FIDELL (President, National Institute for Military Justice): The military doesn't like to execute people; the Marine Corps hasn't executed anybody since I think the 1840's, so we don't really have a particularly bloodthirsty tradition in terms of the death penalty administration and the armed forces.

HENDREN: The Army meanwhile, recently revised its 1999 regulation on military executions. Lieutenant Colonel Pamela Hart, an Army spokeswoman at the Pentagon, says most of the changes are technical.

Lieutenant Colonel PAMELA HART (Army spokeswoman for Pentagon): The whole Army organizational structure has changed within the last seven years, so it was extremely important that we update that to be current.

HENDREN: Death penalty advocates say the change in rules indicates that the Pentagon plans to begin carrying out executions again soon. Under the old rules that could only happen at Ft. Leavenworth. The new rule issued last week removes that limitation. David Elliott of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty says he worries that would allow the Pentagon to execute American troops far from the prying eyes of the public, in Iraq or at secret prisons in Eastern Europe.

Mr. DAVID ELLIOTT (Director of Communications National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty): What if the U.S. military wants to conduct executions far from the light of day, for example in Guantanamo Bay. The death penalty should not work in a sequestered manner, where the public cannot see what's happening. We need to be able to debate these cases, we need to be fully informed and that means that, these things need to take place under the public eye.

HENDREN: The Army's Pamela Hart says the rule was not designed to allow that to happen.

Lt. Col. HART: This regulation does not have any bearing on the operations in Guantanamo or any other international site. It's specifically geared toward the execution of the inmates on death row here in the United States.

HENDREN: There is also the issue of race. Of the half dozen inmates sitting on the military's death row at Ft. Leavenworth, notes Eugene Fidell, nearly all are black.

Mr. FIDELL: It's been a concern really for many, many years. In fact if you go back and look at the records relating to the last execution, you can see in the files of the Kennedy library in Boston the memoranda calling to the President's attention the fact that there were potential racial implications. And there are continuing racial disparities that have gotten a hard look and they're going to continue to get a hard look, it is troublesome.

HENDREN: The President is required to approve all military executions. The case of Pvt. 1st Class Dwight Loving is likely to reach Mr. Bush's desk first. The Supreme Court upheld his conviction in 1996 for killing two cab drivers a decade earlier. Death penalty opponents say they're especially agitated because the case comes at a time when the federal government is picking up the pace of non-military executions.

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