Reps. Cori Bush and Ayanna Pressley led 35 fellow House Democrats on Friday in pushing President Joe Biden to commute the sentences of all federal death row inmates, pointing to his predecessor's legacy of "carnage and unrestrained violence that must be rectified immediately."
"We believe that rebuilding the dignity of America requires that we recommit ourselves to the tradition of due process, mercy, and judicial clemency when it comes to matters related to the criminal legal system."
"As members of Congress, we stand ready to work with you on your commitment to rebuilding the dignity of America," says the lawmakers' letter (pdf). "We believe that rebuilding the dignity of America requires that we recommit ourselves to the tradition of due process, mercy, and judicial clemency when it comes to matters related to the criminal legal system. For this reason, we urge you to immediately commute the sentences of all those on death row."
Bush (D-Mo.), Pressley (D-Mass.), and the other members of Congress blast the Trump administration's track record on the federal death penalty. Under former President Donald Trump, the federal government resumed executions last summer after a 17-year hiatus and in spite of concerns about the drug protocol. In mere months, the administration killed 13 people, including three in the final days of his presidency. Two prisoners had Covid-19; the other recently killed inmate was Lisa Montgomery.
"She suffered from psychosis, a brain injury, and was a victim of childhood abuse, assault, and sex trafficking," the lawmakers' letter notes. "This was a woman in desperate need of a government that cares for and protects the people among us who have the least. Instead, our system failed her, but we cannot afford to fail the many more like her who are now facing the same fate."
In the last months of his presidency, Trump’s administration executed 13 people — three times as many as the federal government had put to death in the previous six decades.
— Congresswoman Marie Newman (@RepMarieNewman) January 22, 2021
Biden, who took office on Wednesday, promised as a presidential candidate that he would work to pass legislation that would eliminate the federal death penalty and incentivize states to follow suit. He suggested inmates already sentenced to death should "instead serve life sentences without probation or parole."
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"We appreciate your vocal opposition to the death penalty and urge you to take swift, decisive action," the letter tells Biden. It also explains that former President Barack Obama's reticence to commute death sentences allowed Trump to "pursue a horrifying killing spree over the final seven months of his presidency. Commuting the death sentences of those on death row and ensuring that each person is provided with an adequate and unique re-sentencing process is a crucial first step in remedying this grave injustice."
Perhaps inspired by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the lawmakers name all of the death row inmates killed by the Trump administration. In addition to Montgomery, they were Daniel Lewis Lee, Wesley Ira Purkey, Dustin Lee Honken, Lezmond Charles Mitchell, Keith Dwayne Nelson, William Emmett Lecroy Jr., Christopher Andre Vialva, Orlando Cordia Hall, Brandon Bernard, Alfred Bourgeois, Cory Johnson, and Dustin Higgs.
Along with blasting executions as a "barbaric practice" and declaring that "me must move our country towards accountability and healing," the letter points out that "like slavery and lynching did before it, the death penalty perpetuates cycles of trauma, violence, and state-sanctioned murder in Black and brown communities."
On #AppealLive Rep. Ayanna Pressley calls on Pres. Biden to commute all federal death sentences: “We're talking about people. This is not some abstract issue—we're talking about people's lives. And right now there are 50 individuals that are currently on death row.” pic.twitter.com/e18fo7UczD
— The Appeal (@theappeal) January 21, 2021
The lawmakers also urge Biden to call on the U.S. Congress—now controlled by Democrats—to pass the recently introduced Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act (H.R. 262), sponsored by Pressley and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). However, the letter adds, "until that legislation is law, it is incumbent upon the executive branch to end the barbaric practice of federal executions as quickly as possible."
"We can collectively save the lives of people all across America," the letter concluded. "We look forward to working with your administration to enact just and restorative policies that will meaningfully transform our criminal legal system for the better. By exercising your clemency power, you can ensure that there would be no one left on death row to kill. Given the historic nature of your administration, this would be an unprecedented—but necessary—action to reverse systemic injustices and restore America's moral standing."
The leter's co-signers are Democratic Reps. Jake Auchincloss (Mass.), Karen Bass (Calif.), Don Beyer (Va.), Earl Blumenauer (Ore.), Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.), Danny Davis (Ill.), Diana DeGette (Colo.), Dwight Evans (Pa.), Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), Alcee Hastings (Fla.), Pramila Jayapal (Wash.), Hank Johnson (Ga.), Mondaire Jones (N.Y.), Ro Khanna (Calif.), Barbara Lee (Calif.), Andy Levin (Mich.), Zoe Lofgren (Calif.), Alan Lowenthal (Calif.), Donald McEachin (Va.), Marie Newman (Ill.), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Mark Pocan (Wis.), Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), Haley Stevens (Mich.), Bennie Thompson (Miss.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Paul Tonko (N.Y.), Ritchie Torres (N.Y.), David Trone (Md.), Juan Vargas (Calif.), Nydia Velázquez (N.Y.), Bonnie Watson Coleman (N.J.), Peter Welch (Vt.), and Nikema Williams (Ga.).