Monday, January 22, 2018
Another Federal Death Case in a Non-Death State
For the second time this month, the federal government has filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty for a murder committed in a non-death State. This particular case is a good example of just how broadly federal jurisdiction extends, permitting the federal government to seek the death penalty in cases where there is little national interest.
Brendt Christensen is accused of kidnapping Yingying Zhang from a bus stop in Champaign, Illinois and later sexually assaulting, torturing, and killing her. There is no allegation that Christensen ever crossed state lines during this crime. Thus, prior to 2006 this would not have been a federal offense. But the Federal Kidnapping Act was amended that year to cover kidnappings where the actor “uses the mail or any means, facility, or instrumentality of interstate or foreign commerce in committing or in furtherance of the commission of the offense.” The instrumentalities of interstate commerce that Christensen used during the kidnapping were (1) his cell phone and (2) his car.
It is unclear whether an automobile is an instrumentality of interstate commerce, although at least two federal circuit courts have written that it is. Unfortunately, the reasoning of the courts leaves something to be desired. See United States v. Ballinger, 395 F.3d 1218, 1226 (11th Cir. 2005) (“Instrumentalities of interstate commerce . . . are the people and things themselves moving in commerce, including automobiles . . . .”); United States v. Bishop, 66 F.3d 569, 588 (3d Cir.1995) (agreeing with Government’s position that “motor vehicles are the quintessential instrumentalities of modern interstate commerce” (internal quotation marks omitted)). I imagine that an automobile could be considered an instrumentality of interstate commerce on at least two theories. First, the car itself most likely traveled in interstate commerce when it was sold to its original owner. And second, the car could be used to cross state lines.
Notice, though, that if an automobile is considered an instrumentality of interstate commerce, a good many mine-run kidnappings are now federal crimes. Where death results, and where the crime takes place entirely within a non-death-penalty State, the feds can prosecute such offenses in order to seek the death penalty.