Amnesty Report Demands Biden Take Action to End Death Penalty

Activists hold an anti-death penalty protest in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on January 17, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Amnesty Report Demands Biden Take Action to End Death Penalty

"The world is waiting for the USA to do what almost 100 countries have achieved during this past half-century—total abolition of the death penalty," said the group.

International human rights group Amnesty International on Monday called on U.S. President Joe Biden to follow through on his campaign promise to eliminate the federal death penalty and commute the sentences of death row inmates as the country approaches the 50th anniversary of the landmark capital punishment case Furman v. Georgia.

In a new report, The Power of Example, the organization notes that Biden made history when he was elected as the first U.S. president to oppose the death penalty, asking, "Whither the Biden death penalty promise?"

"Biden must immediately make up for lost time by commuting the death sentences of all those on federal death row."

"Except for a temporary moratorium on federal executions, in the 18 months since he entered the White House as president, little progress on his abolitionist pledge has been visible," the report reads. "What is more, his administration's defense of the sentences of all of those currently on federal death row--opposing relief and moving them closer to execution--is cause for concern."

A year ago, Biden's Department of Justice angered rights advocates by seeking the death penalty in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was convicted in 2015 of killing three people and injuring hundreds when he bombed the finish line of the Boston Marathon two years earlier.

The report released Monday "stems from Amnesty International's concern that the clock is running on the Biden pledge with little to show for it."

With the anniversary of Furman approaching this week, Amnesty said, now "is an opportune moment for the U.S. administration and members of Congress to be reminded that the world is waiting for the USA to do what almost 100 countries have achieved during this past half-century--total abolition of the death penalty."

In Furman, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment, which bans cruel and unusual punishment, temporarily abolishing the practice until a 1976 case reinstated it.

Anti-capital punishment advocates were relieved when Biden was elected in November 2020, following what Amnesty deputy research director Justin Mazzola called "a stark reminder of the horror show that is capital justice" when President Donald Trump resumed federal executions after a 17-year hiatus in July 2020.

The federal government executed 13 people between July 2020 and January 2021 "despite compelling legal claims, including those of racial discrimination, arbitrariness, inadequate legal representation, mental and intellectual disabilities, and prosecutorial misconduct," said Mazzola.

Seventeen months into Biden's administration, Mazzola added, "as memories of that shameful episode fade, it seems that the political will for abolition is dissipating also."

"The USA has carried out more than 1,500 executions since Furman, even as it has labeled itself as a global human rights champion," said Mazzola. "Yet international human rights law requires abolition of the death penalty within a reasonable timeframe."

"Biden must immediately make up for lost time by commuting the death sentences of all those on federal death row," Mazzola added.

In order to make good on his promise to be the first American president to support abolishing the death penalty, the report reads, Biden must "immediately commute all existing federal death sentences," an action which would save the lives of 45 people on death row.

The report also calls on the president to "support a public information campaign about abolition aimed at demonstrating the facts about arbitrariness, racial bias and impact, errors and other realities of capital justice; the requirements of international human rights law; and the national and global trends towards abolition."

In the past five years, Sierra Leone, Kazakhstan, Guinea, Chad, and Burkina Faso have become the latest countries to abolish the death penalty, while the U.S. has repeatedly been among a minority of nations to oppose a United Nations moratorium resolution on capital punishment.

To join the growing number of countries that have abolished the practice, Amnesty also called on Congress to immediately work with the White House to promptly enact legislation ending the federal death penalty and on the DOJ to:

  • Maintain the moratorium on executions until abolition of the federal death penalty is signed into law and all federal death sentences have been commuted;
  • Support commutation of every current federal sentence of death;
  • Work actively to vacate every current federal death sentence rather than oppose relief;
  • Instruct all U.S. attorneys that the government will no longer authorize pursuit of death sentences in federal prosecutions; and
  • Actively oppose the death penalty in any litigation in any case in which the federal government is involved at the state or federal level that touches directly or indirectly on this punishment and make clear in any such legal materials that the U.S. government is committed to abolition.

"The USA must finally recognize the death penalty as a human rights issue on which it should offer exemplary leadership," reads the report, "not just to retentionist states within the country but to the diminishing list of countries that retain this punishment."

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