The House bill that would reauthorize the USA Patriot Act anti-terrorism law includes several little-noticed provisions that would dramatically transform the federal death penalty system, allowing smaller juries to decide on executions and giving prosecutors the ability to try again if a jury deadlocks on sentencing.
The bill also triples the number of terrorism-related crimes eligible for the death penalty, adding, among others, the material support law that has been the core of the government's legal strategy against terrorism.
Under the proposals, 41 crimes would be added to the 20 terrorism-related offenses now eligible for the federal death penalty. Prosecutors would also find it easier to impose a death sentence in cases in which the defendant did not have the intent to kill.
In one example cited by Human Rights Watch, "an individual could be sentenced to death for providing financial support to an organization whose members caused the death of another, even if this individual did not know or in any way intend that the members engage in acts of violence."
But critics are most concerned about procedural changes related to juries, including a provision that would allow a trial with fewer than 12 jurors if the court finds "good cause," with or without the agreement of the defense.
The bill would also give prosecutors a chance to try again if a jury is deadlocked over a death sentence. Currently, a hung jury at sentencing automatically results in a life sentence.