Trump supporters falsely claim special counsel seeking death penalty in indictment over 2020 election

Donald Trump supporters and right-wing media outlets have spread incorrect claims that the federal government is seeking the death penalty against the former president as part of its indictment for allegedly attempting to overturn the 2020 election. These claims quickly circulated among conservative corners of the Internet, with Mr. Trump’s Truth Social platform sending users an alert stating that the new charges carried the death penalty. Conservative influencer Dinesh D’Souza also claimed that the alleged death sentence revealed how scared the government is of Trump. However, a spokesperson for the special counsel’s office clarified that these claims are not accurate and that the indictment does not contain the special findings required for a death penalty.

The misinterpretation arises from one of the federal statutes that prosecutors have accused Trump of violating, Section 241 of Title 18 of US Code. This law is part of a landmark set of provisions passed after the Civil War to prosecute those who sought to deprive the civil rights of newly enfranchised Black Americans. In this case, violating Section 241 is a felony that carries up to 10 years in prison. The penalty can be extended to life in prison or death if the government can prove an aggravating factor, such as kidnapping, aggravated sexual abuse, or resulting in death. However, the indictment against Trump does not argue that he is responsible for any aggravating circumstances related to the deaths that occurred during the January 6 insurrection.

Instead, the Department of Justice (DoJ) alleges that Trump and his associates knew he lost the election but still engaged in a conspiracy to hold onto power. This scheme involved spreading false claims, attempting to send false elector slates to Washington, and pressuring officials to interfere with the election certification process. The focus of the scheme was on several counties with large Black and Latino voter populations, who tend to vote for Democrats. Special counsel Jack Smith described the attack on the Capitol as an assault on American democracy fueled by lies.

The civil rights statute used in this case has previously been used to prosecute officials for attempting to alter election results, as exemplified by the 1915 case US v Mosley. This historical battle over the right to vote, often intertwined with race, continues to underlie the story of Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election. While prosecutors are not arguing for the death penalty, the sentencing of Trump will still require careful consideration.

Former federal prosecutor Michael McAuliffe noted that the sentencing guidelines, which assign numerical values to various factors to determine a presumptive sentence, may prove inadequate for Trump’s unique situation. The potential jail time for Trump, if convicted, remains speculative. Both the crimes and the defendant are singular in this case.

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