Sessions tells prosecutors death penalty on the table in drug cases

By Laura Jarrett, CNN

(CNN) -- Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent federal prosecutors a reminder Wednesday that they have the power to seek America's most serious punishment for certain drug crimes: the death penalty.

"Congress has passed several statutes that provide the Department with the ability to seek capital punishment for certain drug-related crimes," Sessions said in a statement. "I strongly encourage federal prosecutors to use these statutes, when appropriate, to aid in our continuing fight against drug trafficking and the destruction it causes in our nation."

Sessions' blunt message comes as the Trump administration touts efforts to fight the nation's opioid epidemic and drug-related crimes.

On Monday in New Hampshire, President Donald Trump said, "if we don't get tough on the drug dealers, we are wasting our time."

Trump went on to say the punishment would be used against the "big pushers, the ones who are really killing people," but seeking the death penalty for those dealing drugs when no one is killed could set up legal challenges.

"The Supreme Court has consistently refused to sanction the use of the death penalty in crimes other than homicide. That makes another signature Trump policy headed for legal trouble," said Ames Grawert, senior counsel in the Justice Program at the Brennan Center.

In 2008, the court decided that imposing the death penalty on someone who raped, but did not kill, a child was unconstitutional. But the justices left open which other "non-homicide" offenses against the state, if any, may be punished by death.

Under current federal law, prosecutors have the ability to seek capital punishment for certain drug-related crimes, including dealing in extremely large quantities of drugs under what is known as the "Kingpin Statute" -- however, it has never been used to seek the death penalty before, according to a Justice official.

Sessions has recently sought to make clear he sees a direct link between drug dealing and violence.

"Drug trafficking is an inherently violent and deadly business: if you want to collect a drug debt, you collect it with the barrel of a gun," Sessions said Monday. "As surely as night follows day, violence and death follow drug trafficking, and murder is often a tool of drug traffickers."

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