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S. 619: Defending Our Defenders Act


Should the punishment for killing a cop be “an eye for an eye”?

Context

46 law enforcement officers died from “felonious incidents” in 2020, according to the FBI. While the full-year numbers for 2021 don’t appear to have been released yet, through the first nine months of that year, 59 law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty.

“That’s an over 50 percent increase from [the same period in 2020],” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a press release. “That basically translates to every five days — more often than every five days in this country — an officer is murdered in the line of duty. And that’s totally unacceptable, and it’s a tragedy and it needs attention.”

As of this writing, the most recent law enforcement officer killed in the line of duty (excluding automobile crashes) was New York City Police Officer Wilbert Mora, who was shot and killed when he went to an apartment to check on a domestic dispute. The domestic dispute suspect killed both Mora and his partner Jason Rivera.

What the legislation does

The Defending Our Defenders Act would allow the death penalty for a person who murders a cop or other law enforcement officer.

The House version was introduced on March 9, 2021 as H.R. 1690, by Rep. Yvette Herrell (R-NM2). The Senate version was introduced the same day as S. 619, by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR).

What supporters say

Supporters argue that the death penalty should be reserved for the most heinous crimes, and this certainly qualifies as one of them.

“New Mexicans were shocked and saddened to learn of the murder of State Patrolman Darian Jarrott during a shoot-out with a drug runner earlier this month,” Rep. Herrell said in an early 2021 press release. “Just five years ago, two other New Mexico police officers [Ismael Chavez and Clint E. Corvinus] were shot and killed in the line of duty. The criminals who took these lives deserve to face the maximum penalties allowed by law.”

“Law enforcement officers dedicate their lives to defending the rule of law and protecting their fellow citizens. An attack on an officer is an attack on our democracy, and those criminals must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” Sen. Cotton said in a separate press release. “Our bill will subject those who murder police to a punishment they deserve.”

What opponents say

Some opponents argue the death penalty shouldn’t exist at all. In 2019, GovTrack Insider covered the Federal Death Penalty Abolition Act, introduced after the Trump Administration announced its plans to impose the first federal death penalty sentences since 2003. (The first of these executions was carried out in July 2020.)

“The death penalty is an immoral practice and it should be abolished,” lead House sponsor Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY13) said in a press release. “I strongly believe that decisions of whether a person should live or not are not to be made by a government, let alone one such as ours that is founded on the inalienable rights of individuals.”

Odds of passage

The House version has attracted 28 cosponsors, all Republicans. It awaits a potential vote in the House Judiciary Committee.

The Senate version has not yet attracted any cosponsors. (The reason for the considerable discrepancy between the House and Senate cosponsorship is unclear.) It awaits a potential vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Odds of passage are low in the Democratic-controlled Congress.

Senate version was previously introduced in 2020 under the then-Republican controlled chamber, by former Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA), but never received a committee vote.

Last updated Feb 15, 2022. View all GovTrack summaries.

The summary below was written by the Congressional Research Service, which is a nonpartisan division of the Library of Congress, and was published on Mar 9, 2021.


Defending Our Defenders Act

This bill establishes federal criminal offenses involving the murder of federal, state, or local law enforcement officers. Violators are subject to life in prison or death.

The bill sets forth aggravating factors (e.g., intent to ambush or prior history of promoting violence against a law enforcement officer) to be considered in determining whether to impose the death penalty.