JACKSON — Mississippi is set to add terrorism to the list of crimes that could lead to the death penalty, if a victim is killed.
“The governor intends to sign this public safety measure,” Gov. Phil Bryant’s spokesman, Mick Bullock, told The Associated Press.
Mississippi prosecutors already can pursue the death penalty if a victim is killed while certain other felonies are committed — crimes such as rape or armed robbery. The new law will add terrorism as one of the other, aggravating crimes.
Senate Bill 2223, which will become law July 1, defines terrorism as an act committed to influence government by intimidation, coercion, mass destruction or assassination, or to intimidate or coerce civilians.
It specifies that such intimidation or coercion would not include “peaceful picketing, boycotts or other nonviolent action.”
The bill’s sponsor Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, said the definition of terrorism in the state law will mirror the definition in federal law.
“Lord forbid, if there were a federal prosecution and a severe enough penalty were not imposed, we’d probably want to bring our own case,” McDaniel said in a phone interview from his law office.
McDaniel said he has tried to get this change enacted into law for several years. He said he considers terrorism “a very real threat.”
Matt Steffey, a constitutional law professor at Mississippi College School of Law, said Tuesday that he doesn’t foresee many instances for a state law to be used.
“Significant acts of terrorism are typically prosecuted as federal offenses,” Steffey said.
Steffey also said the state law could be challenged on grounds of being too vague and “may be applied in a way that is not sufficiently predictable.”
Mississippi’s history includes the June 1963 assassination of state NAACP leader Medgar Evers in Jackson and the June 1964 slayings of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman in Neshoba County. Could acts such as those be considered “terrorism” under the new law?
Steffey said the law could not apply retroactively in old civil rights-era slayings. However, Steffey said if he were writing a law that could cover a renewal of Ku Klux Klan-style killings in the future, “I’d want to make sure it covers the notable instances of terrorism in Mississippi’s history in a way that is certain to be enforceable.”
McDaniel said he’d have no problem with prosecutors using the updated law to pursue the death penalty if there are new cases of racially motivated killings that could be considered a form of terrorism.
“Terrorism, no matter its intent, is still terrorism and should not be condoned in a civilized society,” McDaniel said.
The House and Senate both passed the final version of the bill April 3. The House vote was 113-1, and the Senate vote was 52-0.