An Army appeals court's November decision to uphold the death sentence of Timothy Hennis, a former Fort Bragg soldier, is raising questions over the death penalty in military court.
The decision came after Hennis appealed the death penalty sentence he was handed in his 2010 court martial.
Hennis was charged in 1986 with three counts of first-degree murder and one count of rape after raping and killing Kathryn Eastburn and two of her three daughters. Hennis was an Army Sergeant stationed at Fort Bragg at the time.
Hennis’ lawyers appealed the case and the state supreme court granted Hennis a new trial in 1988. He was later acquitted in 1989. He re-enlisted in the Army and eventually retired in the early 2000s.
After retiring, Hennis was called back into service and sent to Fort Bragg in 2006 for prosecution. Shortly after reporting for duty, the military charged Hennis with triple murder again, this time in military court. Hennis was found guilty once again and sentenced to death a second time in 2010, which his defense said is double jeopardy.
Frank Baumgartner, a professor of political science at UNC, said the death penalty is rarely carried out.
“The federal government has only executed three people since 1976 and the military hasn’t executed anybody,” Baumgartner said.
The last time the military executed someone was 1961 before it was banned in 1983 then reinstated in 1984. Today, there are currently six men on military death row, including Hennis.
“It’s unlikely that the military would actually carry it out," Baumgartner said. "It’s very paradoxical, it’s very strange."
He said Hennis will likely end up living out a life-sentence in solitary confinement in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Eugene Fidell, a senior research scholar in Law at Yale Law School, said Hennis won't necessarily escape his sentence.
“He is definitely in a world of trouble and I think he stands quite a good chance of being executed," he said.
Fidell said one of the reasons the military has not executed anyone in so long is because every military execution needs personal approval from the president.
“Typically, military cases tend to be left on the president’s desk when an old one leaves office and a new one comes in," Fidell said. "They figure it’ll be somebody else’s headache."
Baumgartner said regardless of whether someone agrees or disagrees with military executions, the current system has negative effects on both inmates and the victims' families.
“There is a really strange phenomena in the death penalty of kind of a falseness of a promise of death and that falseness falls both on the inmate and their loved ones, but also on the surviving family members of the victim of the crime,” Baumgartner said. “It’s really, you know, a deeply dysfunctional system, whether you’re in favor or against it.”
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