Despite expectations that President Joe Biden would take swift action against the death penalty as the first sitting president to oppose capital punishment, the White House has remained silent on the issue and even failed to rescind Trump-era protocols enabling federal executions to resume and allowing prisons to use firing squads that many thought the president would do on day one, reports the Associated Press. President Biden hasn’t said whether he’d back a bill introduced by fellow Democrats to strike the death penalty from U.S. statutes, and his administration also recently asked the Supreme Court to reinstate the Boston Marathon bomber’s original death sentence. The fact that the Biden administration chose to actively push for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s execution suggests the president’s opposition to the death penalty isn’t as all-inclusive as many activists believed. White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said in an email regarding the Tsarnaev decision that the Justice Department “has independence regarding such decisions.” Bates added that the president “believes the Department should return to its prior practice, and not carry out executions.”
The president could take the path of least resistance, politically speaking, by telling his Justice Department not to schedule federal executions during his term. But that would fall far short of fulfilling his campaign promise, and it would leave the door open for future presidents to restart executions. He could also use his executive powers to commute all federal death sentences to life in prison, but there’s no sign of that happening. Granting full clemency to everyone on death row could be politically problematic for Biden and other Democrats, who have a slim majority in both the House and the Senate. Biden didn’t make capital punishment a prominent feature of his presidential run, but he did say on his campaign website that he would work “to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example.