FAIRVIEW HEIGHTS – U.S. Attorney Steven Weinhoeft may be pulling the plug on a media campaign of Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons, who wants Weinhoeft to investigate the murder of lawyer Randy Gori.
Weinhoeft issued a press release on Jan. 14, a day after Gibbons released his statement, saying he can’t assess whether federal law has been violated until facts are presented to him.
“The federal government is a government of limited jurisdiction, and it does not possess general police powers,” Weinhoeft wrote.
“That is why nearly all homicide cases are prosecuted in state courts.”
He wrote that Congress has enacted at least 60 criminal statutes where murder can be prosecuted federally.
“Not all of these crimes are punishable by the death penalty," he werote. “Nor does a homicide automatically become a death eligible federal crime simply because someone crossed a state line.”
He wrote that when U.S. attorneys bring charges that carry a death penalty, the capital case section of the Department of Justice must review the case, a process that culminates in a decision by the Attorney General.
“Those decisions are based upon the specific facts and law applicable to the case, with the goal of ensuring that the federal capital sentencing laws are applied consistently and fairly across the nation," Weinhoeft wrote.
He expressed shock and grief over Gori’s murder, then took a broader view.
“Other area homicides described in recent media accounts also appear to be heinous acts of cruelty that demand justice,” he wrote.
He offered to review any request to open an investigation.
On Jan. 4, defendant Timothy Banowetz allegedly traveled from Missouri to a secluded location near a rural Edwardsville home belonging to Gori. Banowetz is accused of forcefully restraining and threatening Gori and two minors using a knife. The victims were then taken into the home where Gori was cut and stabbed, resulting in his death, according to the letter Gibbons sent Weinhoeft.
The crime was allegedly interrupted when a woman arrived at the home. Banowetz was found uninjured approximately 1,200 feet away in a wooded area by Major Case Squad officers.
Banowetz is charged with first degree murder, armed robbery, auto theft and aggravated unlawful restraint.
Gibbons had previously said during a press conference following Gori’s murder that criminals who come to Madison County to commit violent crimes will “get Madison County justice.”
“And true justice will be served in this case,” he said at the press conference. “This defendant will see the rest of his life behind bars if we have anything to say about it.”
He said in an interview with Fox 2 News reporter Elliot Davis on Friday that he would be reaching out to federal prosecutors to see if the death penalty was an option.
When is murder a federal offense?
Former federal prosecutor C. J. Williams of Iowa, who currently presides as U.S. district judge for Northern Iowa, sketched the boundaries of jurisdiction in a Justice Department bulletin in 2012.
“Federal statutes punishing murder or criminal conduct resulting in death are scattered throughout the United States Code,” he wrote.
“This can make it difficult for a prosecutor to determine whether a case involving a death may give rise to federal prosecution.”
He wrote that it’s a federal offense to kill a President, a high government official, a foreign official, or certain persons engaged in official duties.
It’s a federal offense to kill a federal victim, witness, or informant, and to kill on federal land or in Indian Country.
It’s a federal offense to use interstate commerce facilities or cause another to travel in interstate commerce to kill a person.
Williams separately listed 21 statutes providing federal jurisdiction if a defendant kills a person while committing another federal felony.
He wrote that facts giving rise to federal jurisdiction are often a focus of litigation.
He wrote that defendants in racketeering cases often challenge the existence of the enterprise rather than challenge the evidence of murder. He also wrote that the murder for hire statute makes it illegal to travel or use facilities in interstate commerce with murderous intent for anything of pecuniary value.
He quoted a judge who found, “A defendant need not intend to travel across state lines to commit murder for hire.”
The judge found, “Instead, a defendant need only intend to commit a murder for hire and, in doing so, travel across state lines.”
Williams quoted another judge who found that $100 constituted enough pecuniary value to establish federal jurisdiction.
He wrote that federal jurisdiction exists if a defendant kills a person in furtherance of a drug offense.
“For the government to exercise jurisdiction over a drug trafficking related murder, it must show the murder was committed while the defendant was engaging in a federal drug offense,” he wrote.
“Courts require a substantive connection between the defendant’s drug activities and the murder.
“This does not necessarily mean the government must prove that the motive for the murder was to further the drug trafficking offense.”
He wrote that when death results from commission of a federal offense, it increases the maximum sentence and sometimes exposes a defendant to capital punishment.
Any fact having the effect of increasing a maximum sentence must be alleged in the indictment and proved to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt.
The death penalty protocol changed in 2011, to encourage U.S. attorneys to decide on a death penalty before obtaining an indictment.
Williams wrote that a decision not to seek a death penalty “has enormous practical benefits for everyone.”
He wrote that it speeds the process, negates the need to investigate aggravating and mitigating factors, and avoids the cost of a host of professionals.
Former attorney general Eric Holder, who encouraged early decisions in 2011, made them mandatory in 2014.
He wrote that prior to seeking an indictment, a U.S. attorney must consult with the capital case section.
He wrote that if an attorney general decides to seek a death penalty, the capital case section could provide advice, support, and trial assistance.
“When concurrent jurisdiction exists with a state or local government, a federal indictment for an offense subject to the death penalty generally should be obtained only when the federal interest in the prosecution is more substantial than the interests of the state or local authorities,” he wrote.