227 Feet Inside a Federal Boundary Line: Making a Federal Case Turns a Life Sentence into a Death Penalty

Criminal defense lawyers here in Atlanta, and other parts Georgia and the rest of the country all occasionally confront the question of why some prosecutions end up in federal court yet similar cases are handled in the state court system. I’ve written on this topic previously. Basically, criminal cases come into federal court whenever there is a federal person, place or money, or when the activity has an impact on interstate or foreign commerce. the other day, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit decided that a crime taking place 227 feet inside a federal boundary line was enough to turn a life sentence into the death penalty. The case is United States v. Gabrion, and it’s an excellent example of how some matters end up in federal court, and why the stakes can be so much higher when the feds decide to take over a case.

Mr. Gabrion committed brutal murders in Michigan. One of the bodies surfaced from the bottom of Oxford Lake. A national forest boundary line ran through the part of the lake. The body was found 227 feet inside the boundary line of federal property.

Michigan has never used the death penalty to execute a person. The State abolished the death penalty totally in 1846.

The federal government re-enacted the Death Penalty in a series of laws that were enacted in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Therefore, if a person committed a potential death penalty eligible crime in a state like Michigan, they could not be put to death if the local prosecutors handled the matter, but might face the death penalty if the federal government had enough of a connection to take the case over.

In Mr. Gabrion’s case, the victim’s body was 227 feet inside federal land, so the case was prosecuted in federal court. His lawyers wanted the judge to tell jurors that if the body had been found on State land, then he could not have been put to death. The judge at trial and the majority of judges on appeal rejected this idea, and upheld the death sentence that was imposed on Gabrion. However, there was a spirited dissenting opinion, and there is an outside chance that the United States Supreme Court might take the case for review because of the importance of the issues.

This case involved a brutal crime, but the underlying principles apply to other criminal cases we work on. Over the years I raised a series of challenges to federal cases, arguing that there was not enough of a connection to interstate commerce so as to allow the matter to be brought in federal court. I won a few of these, lost others, but in every one I feel that we put our client’s case in a better posture. That is why it’s important that when looking for a criminal defense attorney, folks should make sure that the lawyer is creative enough to use any potential argument for the person accused of a crime.