'More Is Required': Biden DOJ Pauses Federal Executions

Police officers gather to remove activists during an anti-death penalty protest in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

'More Is Required': Biden DOJ Pauses Federal Executions

The suspension and review of Trump-era policies must be followed by a full prohibition on the practice, anti-death penalty advocates say.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland on Thursday suspended federal executions--a move welcomed by death penalty opponents who urged the Biden administration to go further by fully abolishing the practice "once and for all."

"Serious concerns have been raised about the continued use of the death penalty across the country, including arbitrariness in its application, disparate impact on people of color, and the troubling number of exonerations in capital and other serious cases," Garland wrote in a memo to senior officials.

Garland's directive also includes a review of Trump-era policies.

The Trump administration announced the resumption of federal executions in 2019, ending a 17-year pause. His administration was accused of carrying out a "killing spree," executing--including through the lame-duck period--13 people. "No president in more than 120 years had overseen as many federal executions," the Associated Press previously reported.

The review ordered by Garland will probe "the risk of pain and suffering associated with the use of pentobarbital," the single-drug method directed by former U.S. Attorney General William Barr instead of the three-drug injection that had been protocol. The review will also assess former President Donald Trump's "changes to expedite execution of capital sentences" and policies "that expanded the permissible methods of execution beyond lethal injection, and authorized the use of state facilities and personnel in federal executions."

President Joe Biden campaigned on a vow to "work to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level" and once in office, faced calls from human rights advocates and dozens of lawmakers including Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) to end the federal death penalty "with the stroke of a pen." His administration, however, sought to reinstate the death penalty in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was convicted in 2015 of the Boston Marathon bombing.

"The only sure way to prevent a future spree of federal executions is to abolish the death penalty."
--Sister Helen Prejean

In a Thursday statement responding to the new Justice Department memo, Pressley called the moratorium "welcome and long overdue action" and applauded the administration "for being responsive to our calls and to the generations of activists organizing to abolish the death penalty," which "has been disproportionately used to execute Black and brown Americans."

"Our work to end state-sanctioned murder in America is urgent," the Massachusetts Democrat said, and reiterated her demand that Biden commute death row sentences and federal prosecutors no longer seek death penalty sentences.

Pressley also pointed to the federal death penalty prohibition legislation she introduced with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) as key to stopping future state-sanctioned killings.

"We're not backing down in this fight and I look forward to working with the administration to build on this action today," she said. "A more just world is possible."

Author and noted anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean similarly urged further executive action and cautioned against insufficient measures that could set the stage for a future administration following in Trump's footsteps on executions.

"While a moratorium on federal executions has symbolic value, we've seen the danger of half-measures that do not fully address the fundamental brokenness of our death penalty system," she wrote in a Twitter thread Thursday. "More is required."

"A moratorium with no commutations or legislation during the Obama administration brought us 13 rapid-fire executions during the Trump administration," said Prejean, urging Biden to follow through on his promise to end the federal death penalty.

She also pointed to the legislation introduced by Pressley and Durbin, which she said the "Biden administration and congressional leaders should make... a priority."

"The only sure way to prevent a future spree of federal executions," she said, "is to abolish the death penalty."

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