Trump supporters falsely claim that former president faces death penalty

Prosecutors aren’t arguing Mr Trump is responsible for January 6 deaths, an aggravating circumstance which could trigger death penalty

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Thursday 03 August 2023 14:55 BST
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Special Counsel Jack Smith announces indictment against Donald Trump in Jan 6 probe

Donald Trump supporters and right-wing media outlets are incorrectly claiming that the federal government is seeking the death penalty as part of its four-count indictment against the former president for allegedly seeking to overturn the 2020 election.

After the charges were announced on Tuesday, the claims quickly spread across conservative corners of the Internet. Mr Trump’s Truth Social platform sent users an alert that read “New charges against Trump carry DEATH PENALTY,” while conservative influencer Dinesh D’Souza claimed on X the alleged death sentence “proves how scared they are of Trump!”

One MAGA Internet personality wrote on social media, “This is how you start a war.”

A spokesperson for the special counsel’s office told The Independent these claims are “not accurate.”

“The indictment does not contain the special findings required,” the DoJ official said.

The misinterpretation stems from one of the federal statutes that prosecutors are accusing Mr Trump of violating, Section 241 of Title 18 of US Code.

As The Independent has reported, the law is part of a landmark set of provisions passed in the brutal aftermath of the Civil War to prosecute those who sought to deprive the civil rights of newly enfranchised Black Americans.

The punishment for violating this section, according to the Department of Justice, is a felony and up to 10 years in prison. That penalty can be extended to life in prison or death if the government “proves an aggravating factor (such as that the offense involved kidnapping, aggravated sexual abuse, or resulted in death)”, per the DoJ.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump (AFP via Getty Images)

Five people, a mix of police officers and rioters, did die during the January 6 insurrection, but, as The Washington Post noted, nowhere in the lengthy indictment against Mr Trump are prosecutors arguing the former president is responsible for any such aggravating circumstances.

(Police officer Michael Byrd, who shot January 6 rioter Ashli Babbitt, was cleared of wrongdoing by the DoJ and the Capitol police in April of 2021, and two of the men who attacked Brian Sicknick, a Washington police officer who died during the insurrection, have been sentenced to prison.)

Rather, the DoJ is alleging that Mr Trump and his associates knew he lost the election, but launched a multi-part conspiracy to hold onto power anyway, a scheme that included spreading false claims, attempting to send false slates of electors to Washington, and pressuring officials to meddle with the election certification process.

The scheme was largely focused on a handful of counties in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Wisconsin, all of which have large communities of Black and Latino voters, who tend to vote for Democrats.

“The attack on our nation’s capitol on January 6, 2021, was an unprecedented assault on the seat of American democracy,” special counsel Jack Smith said Tuesday in a press conference describing the indictment. “As described in the indictment, it was fueled by lies. Lies by the defendant targeted at obstructing a bedrock function of the US government – the nation’s process of collecting, counting and certifying the results of the presidential election.”

As Sean Morales-Doyle, director of the voting rights and elections programme at the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, told The Independent, the civil rights statute in question has been used to prosecute officials for attempting to alter election results in the past.

He pointed to the example of the 1915 case US v Mosley, where Oklahoma officials were punished for trying to exclude votes from a final tally.

“If you read that case, you’d never be able to tell that it’s about race. And there’s not a word about race mentioned, but that’s really the story underlying it,” Mr Morales-Doyle told The Independent.

“And that’s really, throughout our nation’s history, the battle over our democracy. The battle over the right to vote has not always but pretty consistently also been a fight that has race at its heart,” he added. “And that’s true now still, and I think it is an overlooked thread underlying much of the story about Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election.”

Prosecutors may not be arguing Mr Trump caused conduct worthy of the death penalty, but the former president’s sentencing still will be a delicate issue.

"Possible jail time for Donald Trump if he’s convicted of one, some, or all the criminal cases is a fascinating but speculative business," former federal prosecutor Michael McAuliffe told Newsweek. "As for the federal cases charging Trump with crimes, the sentencing guidelines – which assign numerical values to various factors to create a range for a presumptive sentence – will prove inadequate."

In regards to Mr Trump, both "the crimes and the defendant are singular.”

Alex Woodward contributed reporting to this story.

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