updated 1/15/2007 6:16:53 PM ET 2007-01-15T23:16:53

At one point last week, a cop killer, a notorious drug lord and a defendant portrayed by prosecutors as a one-man crime wave were fighting for their lives in the same federal courthouse in Brooklyn in an unusual confluence of three death penalty trials under one roof.

A fourth capital trial involving a triple-murder defendant has opened in Manhattan federal court as well.

“It’s totally unprecedented to have two, let alone four cases going on at one time in one city,” said Kevin McNally, a death penalty expert.

Death penalty opponents have complained that starting with President Bush’s first attorney general, John Ashcroft, officials in Washington began rubber-stamping the pursuit of the death penalty in federal cases, particularly in states with no capital punishment laws of their own. In New York, the state’s highest court declared the state death penalty statute unconstitutional in 2004.

While the volume of state death penalty cases around the country has decreased in recent years, federal cases have multiplied, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

One result: There are now 46 inmates on the federal death row — more than double the total in 2000; three, including Timothy McVeigh, have been put to death since 2001.

One of the three men on trial in Brooklyn, Martin “Sassy” Aguilar — who prosecutors say robbed drug dealers, shot at couples parked in cars for kicks and once killed a man by stabbing him with a screwdriver — was spared Friday when a jury could not reach the required unanimous verdict on whether he should be executed. That means Aguilar, 33, will automatically get life in prison without parole.

2 more set to start in spring
But the death penalty docket in Brooklyn is far from done: Two more capital trials are scheduled to begin in the spring.

Previously, only three capital cases had been tried in Brooklyn since 1994, when Congress dramatically broadened the federal death penalty statute.

Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Roslynn Mauskopf declined through a spokesman to discuss the cluster of cases. Justice Department spokesman Erik Ablin said only that the department has a vigorous, closed-door review process designed to apply the federal death penalty “fairly across the country.”

The other capital-case defendants in New York could take some solace in the fact that New York juries are reluctant to impose death. The last time a federal death sentence was imposed in the city was for a bank robber who killed an FBI agent — in 1954. New York state has not executed anyone since 1963.

The McGriff case
Defense attorneys in New York say a blatant example of the federal government’s hunger for a death sentence was seen last March, when prosecutors announced they were pursuing capital cases against five defendants — including a mother accused of being a lookout in a murder — in the case against a notorious crack kingpin, Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff. Less than two weeks later, the prosecutors reversed themselves without explanation, saying McGriff alone would face death.

McGriff’s lawyer, David Ruhnke, called the maneuvering “simply absurd.”

Today, McGriff sits in a courtroom on the 10th floor of the Brooklyn courthouse, accused of paying $50,000 to have two rivals gunned down in 2001 in an alleged encore to his criminal career.

McGriff, 46, emerged from prison in the 1990s and sought to turn his life around by producing music and movies with the help of Irv “Gotti” Lorenzo, a neighborhood friend who headed the successful Murder Inc. record label, his lawyer said. But prosecutors allege the defendant laundered more than $1 million in drug money through the label.

If a jury convicts McGriff of murder conspiracy and other charges, the panel will be asked to decide whether he should be executed.

Other cases
Another jury will begin the penalty phase this week in the trial of Ronell Wilson, 23, convicted last month in the execution-style slaying of two police officers during an undercover weapons buy.

A third jury convicted Aguilar, a drug-dealing member of the Latin Kings street gang, last month of shooting a man in the head to pay off a debt to a cocaine supplier. A gravedigger testified that he helped the defendant dump the body down a cemetery storm drain — “We heard a splash” — where it was found rotting a year later.

Aguilar also stabbed a fellow inmate before going to court for jury selection, said prosecutor Todd Harrison. “He’s committed virtually every kind of crime known to our society,” Harrison said.

Aguilar’s lawyers sought to persuade jurors to spare his life with testimony from his mother about his rough upbringing. His mother testified that his father slaughtered his pet rabbit to discourage him from becoming a veterinarian and complained that his “Sassy” nickname was “too girly.”

The defendant “has a kernel of good in him and if his life is spared, that kernel will grow,” defense attorney Lou Freeman told the jury.

The anonymous jurors deliberated for six hours before voting 10-2 against death.

“As for taking a taking a life, we don’t have that right,” a woman on the jury said afterward. “God put us here, and God should take us.”

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