WASHINGTON — Reacting to the Arizona shooting with anger, sadness and shock, a majority of Americans think that suspect Jared Loughner should be sent to death row if he's convicted, according to one poll. But if statistics are any indication, he has a good chance of escaping execution.
Federal prosecutors have had little luck persuading juries to send defendants to death row. Of 467 defendants whom U.S. attorneys general in Washington have authorized to face the federal death penalty since it was instituted in 1988, only 15 percent have received it.
The list of criminals who have escaped federal death row includes high-profile convicted killers: Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols and Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph.
Experts say the cases reveal something about the death penalty that Loughner's attorneys undoubtedly will use to their advantage: Once juries or prosecutors know the details of suspects' lives and circumstances — even in the most heinous cases — they can be hesitant to mete out the ultimate punishment. When questions are raised about the defendant's mental state, as in Loughner's case, that decision can be even more difficult, even for staunch supporters of the death sentence.
Although the Justice Department is weighing the death penalty for Loughner, defense attorneys might persuade prosecutors to seek life in prison to avoid trial.
But Aitan Goelman, a former federal prosecutor who helped prosecute the Oklahoma City bombing case, said Attorney General Eric Holder undoubtedly would feel pressure to seek the death penalty given that a congresswoman was shot and six people were killed, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl. "If you have the federal death penalty and you don't seek it in this case, what case do you seek it in?" Goelman asked.