Conyers Floor Statement on H.R. 115, the so-called “Thin Blue Line Act”
Washington, DC, May 18, 2017
Today, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 115, the so-called “Thin Blue Line Act.” House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI) spoke on the House floor in opposition to the bill before its passage. Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery:
Though troubled and saddened by the recent attacks on law enforcement officials, I believe that H.R. 115, the “Thin Blue Line Act,” is counterproductive to ensuring public safety and only serves to exacerbate concerns with the unfair and unjust federal death penalty.
H.R. 115 expands the list of statutory aggravating factors in federal death penalty cases to also include killing or targeting a law enforcement officer, firefighter, or other first responder.
Aggravating factors are specific factors that judges and juries consider in determining whether a sentence of death is justified for the underlying offense. Passage of this bill would add a 17th statutory aggravating factor for federal death penalty eligible offenses.
H.R. 115 has been rushed to the House Floor, without a single hearing and without the opportunity to consider amendments directly relevant to whether our system of imposing the death penalty is fair, just, and reliable. Like most of my colleagues, I support measures that would actually protect our first responders, brave men and women who risk their lives every day to protect us. Unfortunately, H.R. 115 not only fails to do this, but would also exacerbate problems with the federal death penalty.
First: H.R. 115 duplicates federal and state laws that enhance sentences of persons convicted of crimes of violence against law enforcement. The very law that the bill seeks to amend, 18 U.S.C. § 3592, already states that a crime against a high public official, including “a judge, a law enforcement officer, or an employee of a United States penal or correctional institution,” is an aggravating factor that may be considered in determining whether a death sentence should be imposed.
Other federal laws also impose a life sentence or death on persons convicted of killing state and local law enforcement officers, or other employees assisting with federal investigations, as well as officers of the U.S. courts.
Second: H.R. 115 does not address documented and systemic unfairness and racial disparity in the imposition of the death penalty. Any legislation dealing with the federal death penalty must also address numerous concerns related to racial disparity in application of capital punishment, the lack of qualified counsel and sufficient resources to represent those facing the death penalty, and faulty forensic “science” testimony offered in support of convictions in death penalty cases.
The federal death penalty, in particular, is rife with troubling evidence of racial disparity. For example, 36 of the 61 people currently on federal death row are African-American, Latino, Asian or Native- American.
If you break this down by federal circuit, the results are even more disturbing: For example, 15 of 18 men who have received a federal death sentence in the 5th Circuit (Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi) in the modern era have been people of color.
Third: Civil rights and civil liberties organizations oppose H.R. 115. Organizations committed to the protection of civil rights and civil liberties, including the NAACP, ACLU, and the LCCR, have noted that the Thin Blue Line Act, “is an unnecessary and misguided attempt to politicize the unfortunate deaths of law enforcement officers and could ultimately exacerbate existing tension between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”
Finally: H.R. 115 will not deter violence against police officers. By adding a seventeenth aggravating factor to the federal death penalty statute, this legislation ignores scientific research regarding the ineffectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent to crime.
It is important to note that the National Research Council of the National Academies has concluded that studies claiming that the death penalty has a deterrent effect on murder rates are “fundamentally flawed” and should not be the basis of sound public policy.
During our observance of National Police Week, we are reminded of the importance of ensuring that law enforcement officers are safe so they can carry out their duties effectively.
These kinds of “enhancement” bills - like H.R. 115 - do nothing to invest in officer wellness or to address the everyday challenges faced by police officers or first responders. Moreover, they are redundant, especially because there are laws that protect police officers and first responders from violence in all 50 states.
Rather than advancing a bill that amounts to an empty gesture, that is damaging at best, this Congress should focus on real reform measures that will protect law enforcement, first responders, and their communities. Providing duplicative protections to law enforcement simply cannot counter-balance the impact of fundamentally flawed death penalty legislation.
Accordingly, I urge my colleagues to oppose this legislation and vote no on the Thin Blue Line act. I reserve the balance of my time.