A federal death-penalty law passed in 1988 as a weapon in the government's campaign against drugs is moving toward its first tests in cases set for trial.
An anti-drug bill signed by President Reagan allows the government to execute convicted drug kingpins and anyone convicted of drug-related killings.It's been nearly 28 years since the last federal execution. Sixteen states have executed 143 people since the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing states to resume use of the death penalty.
The first attempt at reviving federal executions will be in Chicago. An alleged leader of a drug ring is scheduled for trial this week in the slaying of a federal witness.
In Alabama, David R. Chandler is to go on trial Feb. 12, accused of arranging and providing a weapon for a May 1990 killing related to a marijuana-growing and distribution operation in east Alabama.
And last week, a March 26 trial date was set for a New Jersey man accused of being involved in the dismembering of a police informant and the slaying of a 15-year-old girl.
"You can look for more of these type cases," said Henry Schwarzschild, retired director of the Capital Punishment Project for the American Civil Liberties Union.
"The U.S. attorneys are as eager to make a splash by getting somebody `fried' as a state prosecutor is," he said. "It's not extraordinary in legal terms, but it has a share of political significance."
The last person put to death by the federal government was Victor Feuger, who was hanged at Iowa State Prison in 1963. He was convicted on federal charges of kidnapping and murder.
Feuger was executed under old federal law that has death penalty provisions for such crimes as treason, assassination of the president and top federal officials, and killings involving aircraft hijackings, train wrecks, kidnappings and bank robberies.
Those statutes were never amended to reflect changes in death penalty laws mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court and are widely considered unconstitutional.
The 1988 anti-drug law is the first statute to take the Supreme Court guidelines into account, according to lawyers.
In the Chicago case, U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh approved seeking the death penalty in the case of two men accused of murdering a federal witness to protect their $50,000-a-day drug ring.
One of them, Alexander Cooper, is to go on trial Tuesday. He is accused of running an extensive heroin and cocaine operation from 1982 to 1989.