Last year, it looked as if the Obama administration was moving toward a history-making end to the federal death penalty. A botched execution in Oklahoma brought national attention to the issue, public opinion polls began to shift and President Obama, saying it was time to “ask ourselves some difficult and profound questions,” told Attorney General Eric Holder to review capital punishment. The New York Times say a proposal soon began to take shape among Holder and senior Justice Department officials: The administration could declare a formal moratorium on the federal death penalty because medical experts could not guarantee that the lethal drugs used did not cause terrible suffering. Such a declaration would have pressured states to do the same, would bolster the legal argument that the death penalty is unconstitutionally cruel punishment.
The idea never gained traction, and Obama has seldom mentioned the death penalty review since. “It was a step in the right direction, but not enough of a step,” said Harvard law Prof. Charles Ogletree, a death penalty opponent who met with administration officials as part of the review. He said DOJ has refused to say what he thinks senior officials there believe: “We've had too many executions that didn't work and killing somebody's not the answer.” As the Justice Department sought advice from experts on both sides of the issue, opposition to the idea came from unexpected corners. Some of the most outspoken voices against the death penalty urged the most caution, fearful that a federal announcement would do more harm than good.