A coalition of 100 prosecutors, law enforcement, attorneys and judges has called on President Joe Biden to abolish the death penalty, commute all sentences of federal defendants currently on death row, and dismantle the federal death chamber in Indiana in a letter sent to the president yesterday.
The call for an abolished death penalty comes after the former president Trump administration issued 13 federal executions in seven months, “all an assault on human dignity and an affront to American values,” said the letter.
Trump’s use of the death penalty ended a “17-year hiatus” of the punishment’s federal use, a decision that amidst the pandemic drew criticism, said a Huffington Post article.
The letter bears the logo of the Fair and Just Prosecution organization, which advocates against the “tough on crime” model and works to enable new prosecutorial leadership to create a “smarter and more equitable justice system.”
The letter carried nearly 100 signatures. Signers included George Gáscon, District Attorney for Los Angeles County; Cyrus Vance, Manhattan District Attorney; Peter Keisler, former acting Attorney General; Hector Balderas, Attorney General of New Mexico; Thomas Donovan, Attorney General of Vermont; and Keith Ellison, Attorney General of Minnesota.
Abolishing the death penalty on the federal level would make the new administration’s “commitment to justice clear,” said the letter.
In addition to ending the federal use of the death penalty, the letter also calls on the new administration to commute all existing federal death row sentences, and push for federal prosecutors to use other methods of sentencing, saying “every federal prosecutor who still seeks death sets in motion the wheels of a failed system and the government-sanctioned taking of the life of a fellow American,” said the letter.
“At a time when racial injustice, trust in law enforcement, and our nation’s reputation in the eyes of the world are all in dire need of repair, anything short of these steps would fail to move our nation forward or attend to these pressing crises,” said the letter.
The letter also called for the dismantling of the federal death chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana, where most federal executions are carried out.
According to the letter, continuing to allow the use of execution “raises serious concerns in tension with the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment and the guarantees of due process and equal protection under the law,” and is a “waste of taxpayer resources.”
Instead of delivering to the worst criminals the most severe form of punishment, the country has “instead put to death the unluckiest of the unlucky – the impoverished, the poorly represented, and the most broken,” said the letter.
“Time and again, we have executed individuals with long histories of debilitating mental illness, childhoods marred by unspeakable physical and mental abuse, and intellectual disabilities that have prevented them from leading independent adult lives,” said the letter, calling attention to the certainty of the punishment, leaving no room for error once administered.
The authors of the letter also noted how capital punishment disproportionately affects defendants of color, citing that since 1976 only 21 white defendants have been executed for crimes against a Black person, in comparison to 297 Black defendants who were executed for a crime against a white person in the same time period.
Such research “underscores the systemic racism evident throughout our justice system,” said the article.
“We ask you to not only support federal legislative efforts to end capital punishment, but to take all steps in your power to disassemble the machinery of death and ensure future presidents cannot execute the dozens of people on federal death row at will,” said the letter.
Should the federal government impose legislation to end the death penalty, it would join the 22 other states that have already abolished the use of state-administered executions.
Abolishing the death penalty would be a continued trend of supporting criminal justice policy for President Biden, who today signed executive orders that push for equity within different sectors of the criminal justice system. Supporting federal legislation in favor of ending the death penalty federally would be a step away from one of Biden’s biggest criticisms, with his part in the 1994 crime bill.
While according to the Brennan Center, Biden has expressed that he is opposed to the death penalty, he has yet to push for legislation that would end it federally, or release the nearly 50 people remaining on death row.
This summary was prepared by TCR justice reporting intern Emily Riley.