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Attorney General Eric Holder speaking at the National Press Club on Tuesday, February 17, 2015. (Image: Screenshot)

Holder: "I Am Opposed to the Death Penalty"

Speaking in a personal capacity, nation's top law enforcement officer says a national moratorium on execution would be appropriate while Supreme Court reviews challenge to lethal injection

Jon Queally

Attorney General Eric Holder, the nation's senior law enforcement officer, said on Tuesday that he is "opposed to the death penalty" and said a national moratorium would be appropriate while the U.S. Supreme Court reviews a pending challenge to the practice brought by death row inmates in Oklahoma.

During an event at the National Press Club and speaking from what he called a "personal capacity," Holder said that because it is "inevitable" that innocent people end up being wrongfully executed he does not support the concept of state-sanctioned murder.

"Our system of justice is the best in the world. It is comprised of men and women who do the best they can, get it right more often than not, substantially more right than wrong," Holder said. "There's always the possibility that mistakes will be made ... It's for that reason that I am opposed to the death penalty."

He continued: "It is one thing to put somebody in jail for an extended period of time, have some new test that you can do and determine that person was, in fact, innocent. There is no ability to correct a mistake where somebody has, in fact, been executed. And that is from my perspective the ultimate nightmare."

The current case before the Supreme Court relates to a suit filed by death row inmates in Oklahoma who charge the state's use of experimental lethal injection cocktails—which have resulted in a series of "botched" executions in the state and elsewhere around the country—amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and should be banned.

In regard to the process, Holder said, "I think fundamental questions about the death penalty need to be asked. And among them, the Supreme Court's determination as to whether or not lethal injection is consistent with our Constitution is one that ought to occur. From my perspective, I think a moratorium until the Supreme Court made that determination would be appropriate."

As the Huffington Post reports, this is not the first time the Attorney General has expressed his opposition to the capital punishment:

Holder, who is retiring pending the confirmation of his nominated successor Loretta Lynch, has long been personally opposed to the death penalty.

"I think that the issue is made real when you look at some of the things that have happened in the states over the last year or so, where you had these botched executions, where you had an inability to get the appropriate drug," Holder told The Marshall Project last year. "We've had doctors unwilling to participate in the process. I think this is pushing this country toward some really fundamental questions about -- even though, you know, people still support the death penalty by 55 percent, or whatever the number is -- some fundamental questions about continued use of the death penalty."

According to Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, though Holder's most recent comments may have no legal impact, his voice is important to the ongoing debate. "All of this has symbolic impact," Dieter told USA Today on the controversy of the death penalty where questions have also been raised about defendants' access to counsel and mounting numbers of wrongful convictions involving death row prisoners.


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