President George W. Bush has approved the first execution by the military since 1961, upholding the death penalty of a U.S. Army private convicted of a series of rapes and murders more than two decades ago.
As commander in chief, the president has the final authority to approve capital punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and he did so on Monday in the case of Private Ronald Gray, convicted by court-martial of two killings and an attempted murder at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the White House said in a statement.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the death penalty in the military in 1996, no one has been executed since President Ronald Reagan reinstated capital punishment in 1984 for military crimes.
The last military execution was ordered by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957, although it was not carried out by hanging until 1961. President John F. Kennedy was the last president to face the question, in 1962, but commuted the sentence to life in prison.
"While approving a sentence of death for a member of our armed services is a serious and difficult decision for a commander in chief, the president believes the facts of this case leave no doubt that the sentence is just and warranted," the White House press secretary, Dana Perino, said in a statement after the decision. "Private Gray was convicted of committing brutal crimes, including two murders, an attempted murder and three rapes," the statement said.
Bush, a supporter of the death penalty, approved the sentence after Gray's case had wound its way through the army's legal bureaucracy and the military's courts of appeal. The secretary of the army sought Bush's final approval.
There are six people on the military's death row at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Gray is the first whose sentence has gone to the president. A member of the armed forces cannot be executed until the president approves the death sentence.
It can still be appealed, which the White House suggested was all but certain, meaning an execution was not expected soon, possibly not during Bush's remaining months in office.
The military death penalty has been dormant for so long that it was unclear what the method of execution would be.
Perino declined to discuss the decision further, citing the potential for appeals. She added that Bush's "thoughts and prayers are with the victims of these heinous crimes and their families and all others affected."
Gray was accused of four murders and eight rapes from April 1986 to January 1987 while serving at Fort Bragg.
According to the White House's chronology of the case, he pleaded guilty to two murders and five rapes, among other offenses, in state court in North Carolina and was sentenced to life in prison.
He separately faced court-martial in two of the murders and an attempted murder, involving three women, two of them soldiers, the third a civilian taxi driver whose body was found on the post.
In 1988, he was convicted, and his sentence has since been approved by his command, the Army Court of Military Review, and the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.
In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his case.
Bush's decision clears the way for a new round of appeals in civilian courts, beginning with U.S. District Court, said Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, a nonprofit organization in Washington.Among the issues, Fidell said, is the fact that Congress has since required capital cases to be considered by a 12-member jury, not the smaller ones that previously decided cases.