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Death penalty opponents stage protest

Abe Bonowitz of Death Penalty Action, an execution abolitionist group, protests near the Terre Haute Federal Correctional Complex in Indiana in July 2015.(Photo: Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Democrats Pressure US Justice Department to Stop Seeking Death Penalty

"The momentum behind abolishing the death penalty is growing and Attorney General Garland must act."

Jessica Corbett

Just over a month after U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland suspended federal executions, four congressional Democrats on Monday urged the Biden administration to formally direct Department of Justice prosecutors to no longer seek the death penalty.

"We must work to build a criminal-legal system that is deeply rooted in a love for humanity, which begins with ending the federal death penalty in our country."
—Rep. Cori Bush

In a letter (pdf) to Garland, Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), Cori Bush (D-Mo.), and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, write that "capital punishment is a deeply flawed and inhumane practice that the Department of Justice can and must discontinue."

"Its known deficiencies, 'including arbitrariness in its application, disparate impact on people of color, and the troubling number of exonerations in capital and other serious cases,' are thoroughly documented," the letter continues, citing Garland's July memo (pdf). "Despite these realities, the death penalty continues to be imposed in an arbitrary and capricious manner."

The letter also highlights how "racism is inextricably embedded in the history and application of the death penalty, resulting in the disproportionate killing of Black people," and that "the rate of innocence has proven to be particularly alarming."

Pressley, in a statement Monday, applauded the steps Garland has taken so far, while also demanding more.

"​​Now the Biden administration must strengthen its moratorium on executions by formally directing federal prosecutors to no longer seek the death penalty, commuting the sentences of those on death row, and dismantling the death row facility at Terre Haute," she said. "The momentum behind abolishing the death penalty is growing and Attorney General Garland must act."

The letter points to President Joe Biden's pledge to end federal executions and pressure states to follow suit, and asserts that his administration "must fulfill its campaign promise and take bold action to abolish the death penalty and create a more just legal system."

Bush made clear that ending capital punishment is just a starting point, declaring that "we must work to build a criminal-legal system that is deeply rooted in a love for humanity, which begins with ending the federal death penalty in our country."

Under Biden's predecessor, former President Donald Trump, the U.S. government resumed federal executions and carried out what critics called a "killing spree."

"After Trump's unprecedented killing spree in which he executed 13 Americans, more federal executions than in the last seven decades, it is beyond time for the death penalty to become a part of American history, not remain in America's present," Espaillat said Monday.

"Attorney General Garland took action on this injustice by instituting a moratorium on federal executions, but failed to maintain logical consistency by not directing federal prosecutors to stop seeking the death penalty," he added.

Garland last month also ordered a review of Trump-era death penalty policies. However, the letter argues that "there are no procedural reforms that will eliminate the arbitrariness, anti-Blackness, or imperfectness of the death penalty. This can only be accomplished by putting an end to capital punishment."

"While the United States Congress considers legislation to abolish the death penalty, which has an unprecedented and growing level of support, the Department of Justice still has a moral obligation to take immediate, decisive action," the letter says.

Pressley and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, are the lead sponsors of the Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act of 2021, which would outlaw federal executions and require re-sentencing of people currently on death row.

Although Democrats technically control both bodies of Congress, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking any tie votes in the evenly divided Senate, the upper chamber's rules—specifically the filibuster—enable the GOP to block progressive legislation.

"The Biden-Harris administration was elected on the promise of abolishing the federal death penalty, and we are committed to using every legislative tool to help fulfill it," the letter concludes. "However, it is critical that the Department of Justice moves with urgency like lives depend on it, because they quite literally do."

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