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A Brief History Of The Death Penalty In The U.S.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Trump administration has promised to bring back the federal death penalty, pledging to execute five prisoners on death row. Federal executions have been very rare in modern history. One of the most famous was the killing of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in 2001, which was announced here on ABC News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ABC WORLD NEWS TONIGHT")

PETER JENNINGS: The state has done its legal duty. Timothy McVeigh has been executed by the government. Witnesses at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute this morning say that McVeigh showed no sign of remorse.

INSKEEP: The death penalty is our topic today as we AskCokie. Commentator Cokie Roberts answers your questions about how politics and the government work. Hi there, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: So our first question notes the rarity of modern federal executions. El Kory Ahmed asks what is a moratorium on executions, and how is it different from actually repealing the death penalty? Also, do prosecutors need the death penalty in order to secure plea bargains for something less?

ROBERTS: Well, a moratorium isn't a repeal, which would be doing away with the death penalty altogether, as 21 states now have done. It's a hiatus, and it can be started up again. And we've effectively had a federal moratorium since 2003, which was the last federal execution. But it wasn't official, as it has been in some states.

Public sentiment, Steve, though, has been fairly steadily moving against the death penalty over the last 20 years. That's according to Pew Research. In 1996, 78% of Americans approved of it. That was down to 54% last year.

Now as far as plea bargaining goes, some prosecutors insist the threat of the death penalty is absolutely necessary as a tool. But there is no unanimity on the subject.

INSKEEP: A couple of people wanted to know how often someone has been found innocent after being put to death.

ROBERTS: It's impossible to answer that question. We just don't know. There's been a great deal of publicity in recent years about innocent people on death row. And recently, in announcing his turnaround in his position on the death penalty, Joe Biden said that since 1973, 160 people on death row were later exonerated. There's no way of knowing how many others might have been innocent.

INSKEEP: We also have a question here that gets to the history of executions in the United States. A listener asks, isn't the death penalty a punishment for treason?

ROBERTS: Well, yes, the death penalty is the penalty for treason. And it's the only crime defined in the United States Constitution, defined as levying war against the United States or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. There have been very few cases of federal treason because our founders were wary about it. It had been used to suppress opposition to the crown. Even John Brown was convicted of treason against Virginia, not against the United States.

INSKEEP: Oh, the guy who attacked a federal armory before...

ROBERTS: Right, exactly.

INSKEEP: ...The Civil War.

ROBERTS: The Civil War. And the infamous trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, they were convicted of espionage, not treason.

INSKEEP: Very, very rare penalty. There's one more question here from John Pace, who asks, in a way, a rather gruesome question. When and why did executions stop being a public event?

ROBERTS: The last public execution in the sense of thousands of people coming to watch and gloat was in 1936 in Kentucky. And it was quite a spectacle. It was so distasteful that it might have been the impetus for banning public viewings. But, Steve, to come full circle, McVeigh's execution was shown on closed circuit TV to more than 200 relatives of the victims in Oklahoma City. So it wasn't exactly private.

INSKEEP: Wow, OK. Commentator Cokie Roberts. You can ask Cokie your questions about our politics and the government work by tweeting us with the hashtag #AskCokie. Cokie, thanks.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE GREG FOAT GROUP'S "THE DANCERS WALTZ") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.