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The Department of Justice announced Thursday that Attorney General Merrick Garland has imposed a moratorium on scheduling federal executions. The department will review its policies and procedures on the death penalty, following a wave of federal executions carried out under the Trump administration.
In a memo to the Department of Justice, Garland justified his decision to halt the highly controversial practice, citing factors including its volatile application and outsized impact on black people.
“The Department of Justice must ensure that everyone in the federal criminal justice system is not only granted the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and laws, but also treated fairly and humanely. This obligation is particularly powerful in capital cases,” Garland said in the memo.
He added, “Serious concerns have been raised about the continued use of the death penalty across the country, including the abuse of its application, the disproportionate impact on people of color, and the alarming number of acquittals in capital and other serious cases.” These major concerns deserve careful consideration and evaluation by lawmakers.
Under former President Donald Trump, the federal government carried out its first executions in a generation last year, with 13 prisoners executed in Trump’s final year in office. This included an unprecedented number of federal killings carried out in the final days of his one-term presidency, breaking the nearly century-and-a-half practice of moratoriums on death sentences during the presidential exchange of power.
Then-Attorney General William Barr said the executions were carried out in cases of “amazingly brutal murders”. Civil rights activists had mobilized to save the lives of those under sentence of death. Concerns about how the sentences could be carried out humanely, as well as the recent acquittal of a number of prisoners on death row, have been key factors in the demonstrations to stop the state-sanctioned killings.
“The Department must meticulously maintain our commitment to justice and humane treatment in administering existing federal laws governing death sentences,” Garland said in his Thursday memo.
President Biden, who nominated Garland for the highest law enforcement position, opposes the death penalty. During his campaign, Biden pledged to pass legislation to end the federal death penalty.
Some Democrats in Congress are working on such legislation, but no action has been taken. Some progressives and activists opposed to the death penalty expressed frustration that they did not see further action on this issue from Biden.
“The federal moratorium on executions is one step in the right direction, but it’s not enough,” said Ruth Friedman, director of the Federal Hits Project. “We know that the federal death penalty system is marred by racial bias, arbitrariness, exaggeration, and gross errors by defense attorneys and prosecutors that render it irreparable.”
Friedman said Biden should commute all federal death sentences, warning that a halt alone “will leave these intractable issues unaddressed and pave the way for another unreasonable bloodbath as we saw last year.”
NPR’s Carrie Johnson contributed to the report.