US Attorney General Merrick Garland ordered a halt on federal executions after telling officials that capital punishment is too arbitrary, disproportionately targets people of color, and risks wrongly killing innocent people.
Garland sent a memo to Department of Justice Officials Thursday sharing his ‘serious concerns’ over federal executions, including the ‘troubling number of exonerations’ for people sentenced to death.
The AG’s statement added: ‘The Department of Justice must ensure that everyone in the federal criminal justice system is not only afforded the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States but is also treated fairly and humanly.’
Executions ordered by the US government were halted for close to two decades over shortages of drugs used for lethal injections, and concerns that that method of putting prisoners to death was inhumane.
US Attorney General Merrick Garland ordered a halt on federal executions after telling officials that capital punishment is too arbitrary, disproportionately targets people of color, and risks wrongly killing innocent people
But Attorney General Bill Barr – who served under Donald Trump – ordered them to resume in 2019. That saw 13 prisoners put to death by the federal government between July 2020 and January 2021. No president in more than 120 years had overseen as many federal executions.
Executions on the federal level have always been rare and the government has put to death only three defendants between restoring the federal death penalty in 1988 and Trump’s presidency. The last came in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of a young female soldier.
In 2014, following a botched state execution in Oklahoma, President Barack Obama directed the Justice Department to conduct a broad review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal injection drugs.
Barr said last July that the Obama-era review had been completed, clearing the way for executions to resume. He approved a new procedure for lethal injections that replaces the three-drug combination previously used in federal executions with one drug, pentobarbital. This is similar to the procedure used in several states, including Georgia, Missouri and Texas, but not all.
Barr told the AP in November that the federal Bureau of Prisons had been testing and conducting practice drills ahead of the first execution. He would not say where the drugs would come from.
President Donald Trump has spoken often about capital punishment and his belief that executions serve as an effective deterrent and an appropriate punishment for some crimes, including mass shootings and the killings of police officers.
Joe Biden, who is anti-capital punishment, and his campaign platform called for working ‘to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example.’
In February, anonymous officials from the Biden administration told the Associated Press that the president was in talks of instructing the Department of Justice to stop scheduling new executions.
However, last month, the Biden’s Justice Department has urged the Supreme Court to reinstate the death penalty for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev after it was overturned by an appellate court last summer.
Nevertheless, Garland has stood by his position on capital punishment even when questioned by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) about similar heinous cases like the Oklahoma City bombing, which Garland prosecuted, or a mass shooting in a church like the one that occurred in South Carolina.
‘If we develop a policy of a moratorium, then it would apply across the board,’ Garland responded.
The US government’s execution chamber at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana
Attorney General Bill Barr – who served under Donald Trump – ordered federal executions to resume at the facility, pictured, in 2019
The Trump administration carried out 13 executions between July 2020 and January 2021
A protester opposing the death penalty demonstrated outside the the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, during a snowstorm in January