New York Times, by Katie Benner: The federal government will resume executions of death row inmates after a nearly two-decade hiatus, Attorney General William P. Barr said Thursday, countering a broad national shift away from the death penalty as public support for capital punishment has dwindled.
The announcement reversed what had been essentially a moratorium on the federal death penalty since 2003. Five men convicted of murdering children will be executed in December and January at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., Mr. Barr said, and additional executions will be scheduled later.
Prosecutors still seek the death penalty in some federal cases, including for Dylann S. Roof, the avowed white supremacist who gunned down nine African-American churchgoers in 2015, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber. Both were convicted and sentenced to death.
But the federal government has only executed three inmates since it reinstated the death penalty in 1988, including Timothy J. McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, in 2001, and Louis Jones Jr., who was executed in 2003 for the rape and murder of a female soldier.
“Under administrations of both parties, the Department of Justice has sought the death penalty against the worst criminals,” Mr. Barr said in a statement. “The Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”
President Trump has long supported the death penalty, declaring last year that drug dealers should be executed. By applying it to inmates convicted of murdering children, he may make a more politically powerful argument for it amid diminishing public support.
Democrats, including presidential hopefuls, immediately criticized Mr. Barr’s directive. Senator Kamala Harris of California called capital punishment “immoral and deeply flawed.” Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts restated her opposition to the death penalty, and Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio called it “blatantly prejudiced and unevenly applied.”
The Democratic candidates have increasingly staked out opposition to the death penalty after decades of party stalwarts supporting it to appear tough on crime. Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. reversed course when he unveiled a criminal justice platform on Tuesday, joining nearly all of his opponents. He noted that 160 people sentenced to death since 1973 in the United States were later exonerated, a statistic that he repeated Thursday on Twitter, adding, “Because we can’t ensure that we get these cases right every time, we must eliminate the death penalty.”
Mr. Biden was the lead sponsor of the bill that became the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Some of the inmates now scheduled to be executed are eligible for the federal death penalty under that law.
In response to the Justice Department announcement, Representative Ayanna S. Pressley, Democrat of Massachusetts, introduced a bill that would abolish the federal death penalty.
The Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, four years after effectively striking it down. Many states quickly adopted laws restoring capital punishment, though the federal government did not do so until 1988 for a few offenses and 1994 for many more.
Like the president, Mr. Barr has long supported capital punishment, including during his first stint as attorney general during the George Bush administration. “We need a death penalty to deter and punish the most heinous federal crimes such as terrorist killings,” Mr. Barr wrote in an Op-Ed in The New York Times in 1991 when he was acting attorney general. “That penalty would send a message to drug dealers and gangs.”
But public attitudes toward the death penalty have changed in the ensuing decades. Support for it went from nearly 80 percent in 1996 to a two-decade low three years ago, when just under half of Americans polled backed it for people convicted of murder, according to the Pew Research Center. Public backing of capital punishment ticked back up to 54 percent last year, the center found.
Capital punishment fell out of favor as researchers questioned whether it deterred people from committing heinous crimes and as more defense lawyers proved that their clients had been wrongfully convicted. Fewer than two dozen executions have occurred annually in the United States in recent years, down from a high of 98 in 1999, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
With pressure building to replace capital punishment with life in prison, 21 states have outlawed the death penalty.
Civil rights advocates have also noted the racial disparity among inmates on death row and argued that capital punishment was disproportionately applied to black men.
“The death penalty is plagued by racial bias and geographic bias,” said Cassandra Stubbs, director of the Capital Punishment Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. “Junk science has played an outsized role in who gets the death penalty and who does not,” she added, pointing to instances of experts overstating hair or fingerprint evidence in court testimony.
Advocates and inmates have also argued in lawsuits against state and federal governments that the practice was inhumane. Many of them focused on botched executions where the drugs used were ineffective or caused severe suffering before death.
Nearly a decade ago, drugmakers in the United States and Europe stopped selling the sedatives that prison officials had long used to render inmates unconscious before executing them. In at least one case, a prisoner in Oklahoma regained consciousness during a state execution in which an alternative sedative was used.
Former President Barack Obama briefly considered ending the federal death penalty after that botched execution; directing Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to study the issue, but Mr. Holder’s proposal to declare a formal moratorium never gained traction.
A federal lawsuit filed by several death row inmates in 2005 challenging the use of the three-drug cocktail, which is pending in federal court in the District of Columbia, has been in limbo because the government has had difficulty obtaining the drugs used in that combination.
The Justice Department, which has regularly told the court that it was reviewing its death penalty protocol, filed notice on Thursday that it was moving to the use of pentobarbital. The move will most likely prompt the plaintiffs to review their case.
The five men who are newly scheduled to be executed are not among the plaintiffs in the case, and the Justice Department said that the five have exhausted their appeals.
The Supreme Court term that ended last month featured several bitter clashes over whether inmates can challenge the use of the chemicals used in lethal injections on the grounds that they can cause intense pain.
In 2015, the Supreme Court examined whether lethal injection was unconstitutionally cruel punishment. The justices upheld the use of lethal injection, but in a dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer urged the Supreme Court to take a fresh look at the constitutionality of the death penalty.
He said there was evidence that innocent people had been executed, that death row exonerations were frequent, that death sentences were imposed arbitrarily and that the capital justice system was warped by racial discrimination and politics.
But only Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Justice Breyer’s dissent, and there have been no signs that a majority of the justices have qualms about the constitutionality of the death penalty. To the contrary, the court’s five more conservative members have expressed frustration with what they say is litigation gamesmanship used by opponents of capital punishment to put off executions.
More broadly, they have noted that the punishment is contemplated in the Fifth and 14th Amendments, which call for grand juries in federal cases involving “a capital or other infamous crime” and say that no person may be deprived “of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.”
“And he had power to give life unto the image of the beast, that the image of the beast should both speak, and cause that as many as would not worship the image of the beast should be killed.” Revelation 13:15.