Federal Executions Suspended, Review of Trump-Era Rules Underway

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mderrick garlands

Merrick Garland. Photo courtesy WCTI

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland has imposed a moratorium on future federal executions pending a thorough review of the Justice Department’s policies and procedures, reports The New York Times. 

Garland also called for additional reviews of policy changes regarding the risk of pain and suffering associated with the use of pentobarbital, the expanded permissible methods of execution beyond lethal injection, and a review of the Justice Manual’s capital case provision used to expedite execution of capital sentences, according to the public affairs release. 

“Serious concerns have been raised about the continued use of the death penalty across the country, including arbitrariness in its application, disparate impact on people of color, and the troubling number of exonerations in capital and other serious cases,” Garland said in a memo issued Thursday. 

“Those weighty concerns deserve careful study and evaluation by lawmakers.” 

During Garland’s confirmation hearing in February, he said the use of the death penalty gave him “pause” because of the number of wrongful conviction cases that have occurred across the country, clearly another motivating factor in this temporary moratorium.

Garland also noted that the Department of Justice must ensure that everyone is afforded the right to be treated fairly and humanely as the Constitution details — adding that President Joe Biden approved of Garland’s decision. 

“As the president has made clear, he has significant concerns about the death penalty and how it is implemented, and he believes the Department of Justice should return to its prior practice of not carrying out executions,” Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman, said, as quotes by The New York Times. 

There haven’t been any scheduled federal executions since Biden was sworn into office. To that end, advocates are pushing for Biden to do more, noting that when he ran for president, he said he’d eliminate the federal death penalty altogether, and incentivize states to abolish it as well. 

In 2020, the Trump administration’s Justice Department wasted no time quickly executing three inmates in late July, signifying the first week of the administration’s restart of the federal death penalty after a 17-year-hiatus, The Crime Report detailed.  

Ultimately, the Trump administration carried out 13 federal executions, an “unprecedented run” that ran right up to Biden’s inauguration, the Associated Press reported.   

Public Perception is Still Debated

The death penalty has long been a dividing topic for decades in America. 

Some research has consistently detailed that support for the death penalty is lower now than at any point in nearly five decades, The Crime Report explains.

Researchers at Gallup arrived at this conclusion in November of last year, finding that fewer than six in 10 Americans (55 percent) are in favor of the death penalty — even for convicted murderers. Similarly, even some Republican lawmakers are turning the tide on their position regarding capital punishment. 

As public opinion has seemingly trended away from the death penalty, many states have followed suit, changing their laws. Currently, 23 states prohibit the death penalty, newly including Virginia, which abolished capital punishment earlier this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. 

To that end, additional research released this year argues that a majority of Americans actually favor the death penalty — a new perspective uncovered as a result of a new polling method, changing from a phone-poll with a researcher that could lead to deceptive answers to online self-report surveys. 

The latest Pew Research Center poll released in early June found that 60 percent of people surveyed favor the death penalty for those who are convicted of murder, and 27 percent “strongly favor” it.

While public perception is debated, one thing has remained consistent among research, which is that the public has “widespread doubts about [capital punishment’s] administration, fairness and whether it deters serious crimes,” according to the Pew researchers. 

Attorney General Garland shares these serious concerns, and believes that the Department of Justice must give the topic the attention and scrutiny it deserves.

“We know the federal death penalty system is marred by racial bias, arbitrariness, over-reaching, and grievous mistakes by defense lawyers and prosecutors that make it broken beyond repair,” Ruth Friedman, director of the Federal Capital Habeas Project, said in a statement reacting to Garland’s move to pause federal executions, as quoted by CNN.

The full Attorney General Memorandum can be accessed here. 

Additional Reading: Why the Death Penalty Lingers On in America TCR Special Report

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

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