US Attorney General Calls for a Moratorium on Federal Death Penalty

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Stating that the Justice Department “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 humanely,” and noting “that obligation has special force in capital cases,” Attorney General Merrick Garland last week imposed a moratorium on the federal death penalty.

The moratorium means no federal executions will be scheduled while DOJ conducts a review of the policy changes the department adopted under former Attorney General William Barr, who oversaw the execution of 12 men and one woman from July of last year through January.

They were the first federal executions in 17 years. The ten executions in 2020 were the most in any calendar year in 124 years. All were killed with a single drug, pentobarbital.

“The moratorium is critically important and I hope it is only the first step by the federal government,” DPF President Mike Farrell said. “President Biden campaigned on his opposition to the death penalty. Now he needs to make good on that promise by abolishing capital punishment in the federal system, commuting the sentences of the 46 men languishing on death row, and pressuring Congress to support Sen. Dick Durbin’s and Rep. Ayanna Presley’s bicameral bill to abolish the federal death penalty.

“Abolition of the death penalty and the commutation of those already condemned are the only way to prevent the federal government from conducting another senseless killing spree like the one that shocked the country and reverberated around the world last year.”

The policy changes the DOJ will review include:

  • The risk of pain and suffering associated with the use of pentobarbital;
  • The changes to Justice Department regulations made in November that expanded the permissible methods of execution beyond lethal injection, and authorized the use of state facilities and personnel in federal executions; and
  • The changes to the Justice Department Manual’s capital case provisions, including those added in December and January that expedite the execution of capital sentences, which Garland described as a “departure from longstanding practice. “

The attorney general’s statement said the reviews must include consultation “with a wide range of stakeholders,” including other federal and state agencies, medical experts, and experienced death penalty lawyers.

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