It’s rare for the federal government to seek the death penalty in a state like Hawaii that doesn’t allow it.
Only seven of 59 inmates currently on federal death row are from states that didn’t have the death penalty at the time the sentence was imposed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.
Alberto Gonzales, U.S. attorney general during President George W. Bush’s administration, made the decision to seek the death penalty against Naeem Williams, scheduled for trial Tuesday.
"Under Bush’s administration, the philosophy was the federal death penalty should be spread out among all the states," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the information center.
Legal observers say it’s surprising that the current administration continues to seek the death penalty against Williams.
"It’s disappointing the federal government is choosing to move forward with a death penalty case in a state that so clearly and constantly has rejected that as a form of punishment," said Rick Sing, president of the Hawaii Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
The last time the federal death penalty was approved for a Hawaii case was against Richard "China" Chong. But before he went to trial in 2000, he agreed to plead guilty to a 1997 drug-related murder and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
He died of an apparent suicide about three months later.
Hawaii’s history with capital punishment goes back long before statehood. There were 49 executions in Hawaii dating to 1856, with the last one recorded in 1944, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
The final execution of Ardiano Domingo — a Filipino who was hanged for killing a woman with scissors in a Kauai pineapple field — helped prompt Hawaii’s territorial lawmakers to abolish the death penalty in the state, said Williamson Chang, a University of Hawaii law school professor who teaches a course on the history of law in Hawaii.
Chang said before the law changed, Hawaii disproportionally executed people of color, mostly Filipinos, Japanese and Native Hawaiians.
Because of that history, Chang said he believes Hawaii jurors will struggle with the Williams case.
"We’re used to a society which does not put people to death," he said. "It’s a slap in the face to the values of Hawaii."
Jennifer Sinco Kelleher, Associated Press