PA congressmembers introduce federal death penalty sentencing bill

| 23 May 2023 | 09:36

U.S. Representatives Matt Cartwright and Glenn Thompson recently introduced Eric’s Law, a bill that aims to strengthen federal death penalty sentencing.

Eric’s Law is named for Eric Williams, a federal correctional officer who was murdered by an inmate at the U.S. Penitentiary Canaan in Wayne County who was already serving a life sentence for murder. Following a trial, the inmate was found guilty and received a second life sentence, despite 11 out of 12 jurors voting in favor of the death penalty.

Current law requires a unanimous decision by the jury to impose the death penalty. The bill will allow prosecutors to impanel a second jury for sentencing if the first jury in a federal death penalty case fails to reach a unanimous decision on a sentence.

“Our corrections officers face tremendous risk to their safety each and every day,” said Cartwright, who represents Pennsylvania’s eighth Congressional District, which includes Pike, Wayne and Lackawanna Counties and portions of Luzerne and Monroe Counties. “Sadly, we have lost too many good officers and the loss of Eric Williams still weighs heavy on our hearts. We must do everything in our power to prevent this kind of tragedy from recurring, and that is why I am proud to co-sponsor this legislation. Eric’s Law will ensure justice is served in those horrible incidents where a correctional officer’s life is taken by an inmate.”

“Eric Williams was tragically killed, and his murderer’s sentencing was an injustice,” said Rep. Thompson, who represents the commonwealth’s 15th district. “It is a stark reminder of the danger and extreme violence our officers face every day in our nation’s federal prisons. Eric’s Law will help provide additional protections for our corrections officers, affirm the option for review of the case and allow for a final, definite decision in death penalty cases that our victims and families deserve.”

“At the trial for the murder of my son, I was in disbelief that under current federal law one lone juror can make a biased decision that becomes irreversible. As a father, it was devastating,” said Donald Williams, father of Eric Williams and founder of Voices of J.O.E., a law enforcement advocacy group. “As an American who values our judicial system, I was stunned. A ‘trial by jury’ is at the heart of our rights. Eric’s Law allows prosecutors to retry the sentencing phase of the case to allow for the fair and equal court system that all Americans deserve.”

Cartwright and Thompson’s push will mark the fourth time that the issue has been presented on a federal level. A similar bill was introduced by Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey in 2018, but it never went to vote. Toomey tried again in 2021, and it was reintroduced by senators Ted Cruz, Mike Braun and Tom Cotton in February of this year.