Four Democratic lawmakers are trying to convince the Department of Justice to stop executing federal prisoners during the Trump administration’s lame-duck period.
The Democratic Party’s 2020 platform calls for the elimination of the death penalty. By contrast, the Department of Justice under Attorney General William Barr brought the federal death penalty back in July, executing the first federal death row inmate in 17 years. Since then, the feds have executed seven inmates (a modern record), and there are three executions still scheduled for before the end of the year. One of the inmates, Orlando Hall, is scheduled for execution this Thursday.
Sens. Patrick Leahy (D–Vt.), Dick Durbin (D–Ill.), and Cory Booker (D–N.J.), along with Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D–Mass.), have sent a letter to Barr asking him to suspend these pending executions. The letter notes:
President-Elect Biden’s plan for strengthening America’s commitment to justice includes the elimination of the federal death penalty and Vice-President-Elect [Kamala] Harris is an original cosponsor of legislation we have introduced to eliminate the federal death penalty. A record number of Americans voted in favor of President-Elect Biden and Vice-President Elect Harris and they deserve an opportunity to implement their policy agenda without the Trump Administration rushing to take preemptive and irreversible steps.
The four Democratic lawmakers further observe that at least 172 people who had been sentenced to death have subsequently been exonerated.
Last year, not long after Barr announced his plan to restart executions, this same group of lawmakers introduced a bill to both eliminate the federal death penalty and to resentence prisoners currently on death row to life in prison. There are currently 55 federal death row prisoners. While the legislation picked up several Democratic cosponsors in both houses, it never made it out of the Judiciary Committee in either chamber.
Last week, two attorneys representing death row inmate Lisa Montgomery, who is scheduled for execution on Dec. 8, requested a reprieve because they’ve both contracted COVID-19 while visiting her. They asked the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia for more time to file a clemency petition. District Judge Randolph J. Moss declined to directly intervene immediately but did encourage the Justice Department to consider allowing for an extension given the unusual situation.
The clock is running out for this administration. If the Justice Department manages to carry out the rest of its planned executions this year, it will have put 10 people to death. That’s more than any presidential administration since President Harry S. Truman’s, and all in a period of just over six months.
The American people generally favor the death penalty for convicted murderers (and all of the people the Justice Department has recently executed have been convicted of particularly brutal murders, often involving children). But opposition to the death penalty has been climbing steadily since the late 1990s. Currently, according to Gallup, 56 percent of Americans still support the death penalty while 42 percent oppose it.
When Biden takes office he should quickly use his commutation powers as president to resentence anybody on death row to life in prison.