Amnesty International calls on Biden to abolish the federal death penalty

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Amnesty International called on President Biden to make good on his 2020 campaign promise and abolish the federal death penalty, and commute the sentences of the 44 men on federal death row.

The 114-page report, “The Power of Example: Whither the Biden Death Penalty Promise?”, was released late last month to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Furman v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down the death penalty in the U.S. But this high point in our justice system was short-lived; the death penalty was reinstated four years later, in 1976. Biden was the first President to pledge to abolish it on the federal level but has so far indicated no interest in fulfilling that promise, and AI doesn’t disguise its frustration.

“Half a century and more than 1,500 executions [after Furman), the USA has a President who campaigned for office on an abolitionist platform. . . . . However, little progress on his abolitionist pledge has been visible except for a temporary moratorium on federal executions in the eighteen months since he entered the White House as President. What is more, his administrations defense of the sentences of all of those currently on federal death row – opposing relief and moving them closer to execution – is cause for concern,” the report states.

The last six months of 2020 — the last months of the Trump administration — when the federal government executed 12 men, and one woman “was a brutal wake-up call about what can happen if the fate of individuals on death row is handed to an executive with an appetite for seeing death sentences through to their lethal conclusion,”

AI points out. “As the execution spree fades from the memory, the political will necessary to pass legislation for abolition is at risk of dissipating too.”

And because AI believes time is running out, it devotes the report to reviewing that six-month killing spree “to jog the collective governmental memory of that shameful episode and reboot the political commitment to abolition. It also seeks to remind the US authorities of their general and specific obligations under international human rights law in relation to the death penalty.”

The report gives a detailed account of each of the 13 cases and powerfully evokes how each represented just how broken the death penalty is. Some of those killed had a severe mental illness;  some were mentally challenged, some had been convicted of crimes they committed as teenagers, some had poor legal representation. It seems no box was unchecked in the list of what constitutes a miscarriage of justice. 

AI’s argument is clear and incontrovertible. It’s long past time for the U.S. to abolish its death penalty on the federal and state levels. President Biden must act on his promise, and he must act now. Time is running out. A civilized country cannot allow its government to conduct another killing spree like the one we witnessed in 2020. 

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