Federal prosecutors and defense lawyers are heading toward a rare Federal death penalty trial in Atlanta. The case, United States v. Richardson, no. 1:08-CR-139-CC-CCH, pending before United States District Court Judge Clarence Cooper, is scheduled to be tried next month. The defendant, Brian Richardson, a former U.S. Marine raised in Alabama, is alleged to have murdered another federal inmate, Steven Obara, from Connecticut, while both men were incarcerated at the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta, Richardson for bank robbery and Obara for possessing child pornography. Richardson allegedly strangled and stabbed Obara to death because of his revulsion at the crimes for which Obara had been convicted (including a state conviction for sexual assault). Richardson also allegedly has threatened that he would kill again in prison if he had another chance to do so. After initially being ruled inadmissible, evidence of such statements by Richardson subsequently was ruled admissible in his upcoming trial.
Roger C. Wilson has been assigned by United States Magistrate Judge Christopher Hagy to represent an alleged material witness in the case. That person, also incarcerated in a federal penitentiary, is one of numerous similar witnesses scheduled to be called at trial by federal prosecutors. The Wilson client is not alleged to be involved in any way in the killing of Mr. Obara, but instead is alleged only to be a material witness in connection with certain aspects of that killing. Nevertheless, in such circumstances, the witness is Constitutionally entitled to independent legal representation in connection with any attempts to elicit testimony from him at or in connection with the coming trial.
Lawyers for the defendant Richardson have raised numerous, serious challenges to the conduct of the prosecution, including allegations that one or more of those prosecutors made improper promises to potential witnesses in order to induce them to testify favorably to the prosecution in the case. At least one of those prosecutors has been removed from the case.
Death penalty trials are very unusual in the federal system, as opposed to state judicial systems. There are a variety of crimes that can be punishable by death in the federal system—not only uniquely federal crimes such as espionage, treason, war crimes, and kidnappings or assassinations of high federal officials, but also, in certain circumstances, more generic crimes, including murder by a federal prisoner already sentenced to at least 15 years or life imprisonment. Most crimes possibly carrying a death sentence, including most murders, are state crimes and are prosecuted in state, not federal, courts.
There have been only three federal executions since a 28-year suspension of the federal death penalty was lifted in 2001. The first of those executions, in 2001, was of Timothy McVeigh, convicted of bombing the Oklahoma City federal building. The second, in the same year, was of Juan Raul Garza, convicted of multiple murders in connection with major Mexican drug smuggling operations into the United States. The latest, in 2003, was of Louis Jones, a decorated Grenada and Iraq War combat veteran convicted of murdering a fellow soldier in peacetime. Other notable, earlier federal executions are those of Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953 and of six German and German-American alleged saboteurs in 1942.