Capital Federal Charges: What You Need To Know

American flag and gavel depicting capital federal charges

Michigan was the first state to abolish capital punishment. Actually, it was the first English-speaking territory in the world that did so. That was because it happened in 1847.

Yet in 2002, Marvin Gabrion was sentenced to death for a crime he committed in Michigan.

How could this be?

The answer is that Gabrion dumped the body of his victim, Rachel Timmerman, on federal land. He became the first person put on death row by the federal government when the state in which he committed the crime had no death penalty.

By 2009, 8 other people would join him.

The Definition of Capital Punishment

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Capital punishment refers to the process of sentencing convicted offenders to death for the most serious crimes (capital crimes) and carrying out that sentence. The specific offenses and circumstances which determine if a crime (usually murder) is eligible for a death sentence are defined by statute and are prescribed by Congress or any state legislature.

History of Capital Federal Punishment

Here’s a quick history of federal capital punishment:

  • The Crimes Act of 1790 defined some of our first and executions were handled by the U.S. Marshal Service.
  • In 1972 federal capital punishment was briefly halted after Furman v. Georgia but reinstated under Gregg v Georgia in 1976.
  • The Anit-Drug Abuse Act of 1988.
  • The Violent Crime and Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 and the
  • Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 all expanded the terms of federal capital punishment in response to things like the Oklahoma City Bombing.
  • Timothy McVeigh, in 2001, became the first person to be executed by the federal government since 1963.

Capital Federal Crimes

All federal prisoners on death row currently are there for aggravated murder. However, there are a number of crimes – which mostly involve the death of someone else, which carry capital sentences.

  1. Bringing in and harboring certain aliens resulting in the death of any person: 8 USC 1324
  2. Destruction of aircraft, aircraft facilities, motor vehicle, or motor vehicle facilities resulting in death: 18 USC 32, 18 USC 33, 18 USC 34
  3. Committing first-degree murder during a drug-related drive-by shooting. 18 USC 36
  4. Violence at an international airport resulting in death. 18 USC 37
  5. Murder of a family member of a US official, US judge, Federal law enforcement officer. 18 USC 115, 18 USC 1111, 18 USC 1114
  6. Civil rights violations: If anyone interferes with a person’s right to participate in federally protected activities, obstructs someone’s free exercise of religion, deprives someone of rights under color of law, or conspires to deprive someone of their civil rights, that person shall be subject to punishment by death or by up to life in prison, a fine, or both, if the offense results in death or if it involves kidnapping, an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse, an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill. 18 USC 241, 18 USC 242, 18 USC 245, 18 USC 247
  7. Congressional, Cabinet, and Supreme Court assassination. 18 USC 351, 18 USC 1111
  8. Gathering or delivering defense information to a foreign government. 18 USC 794
  9. Transporting or receiving explosives.  18 USC 844
  10. Murder with the use of armor-piercing ammunition. 18 USC 924
  11. Murder with a dangerous weapon in a Federal facility. 18 USC 1111
  12. Genocide. 18 USC 1091
  13. Murder. 18 USC 1111
  14. Murder of US officers and employees. 18 USC 1114, 18 USC 1111
  15. Murder of foreign officials, official guests, or internationally protected persons. 18 USC 1116, 18 USC 1111
  16. Murder by a Federal prisoner. 18 USC 1118
  17. Foreign murder of US nationals. 18 USC 1119, 18 USC 1111
  18. Murder by escaped prisoners.. 18 USC 1120, 18 USC 1111
  19. Murder of State correctional officers or persons aiding a Federal investigation. 18 USC 1121, 18 USC 1111
  20. Kidnapping resulting in death. 18 USC 1201
  21. Hostage taking resulting in death. 18 USC 1203
  22. Murder of a court officer or juror. 18 USC 1503, 18 USC 1111
  23. Murder of a witness, victim, or informant. 18 USC 1512, 18 USC 1111
  24. Retaliation against a witness, victim, or informant. 18 USC 1513, 18 USC 1111
  25. Mailing of injurious articles resulting in death. 18 USC 1716
  26. Presidential and Presidential staff assassination.  18 USC 1751, 18 USC 1111
  27. Use of interstate commerce facilities in the commission of murder-for-hire. 18 USC 1958
  28. Murder in aid of racketeering. 18 USC 1959
  29. Terrorist attacks and violence against railroad carriers and mass transportation systems. 18 USC 1992
  30. Murder committed during bank robbery..18 USC 2113
  31. Murder committed during motor vehicle theft. 18 USC 2119
  32. Sexual abuse resulting in death. 18 USC 2245
  33. Sexual exploitation of children. 18 USC 2251
  34. Violence against maritime navigation resulting in death.. 18 USC 2280
  35. Violence against maritime fixed platforms resulting in death. 18 USC 2281
  36. Terrorism. 18 USC 2332
  37. Use of weapons of mass destruction resulting in death. 18 USC 2332a
  38. Torture resulting in death. 18 USC 2340a
  39. Treason. 18 USC 2381
  40. Murder by any person engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise.. 21 USC 848
  41. Aircraft piracy resulting in death: If a person kills someone in the process of seizing or exercising control of an aircraft by force or violence and with wrongful intent, the punishment shall be death or life in prison. 49 USC 46502


As you can see, our federal government has expanded its power to seek the death penalty. Since 2002, federal courts have set a precedent for the death penalty even in states without capital punishment.

If you find yourself facing a capital federal charge, it is critical that you consult with an experienced federal defense attorney immediately.

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