Lawmakers Urge Justice Department to Suspend Executions During Transition
President-elect Biden seeks to get rid of the death penalty, but the Trump administration has not formally recognized him as the winner.
Four Democratic lawmakers asked the Justice Department on Friday to suspend federal executions during the presidential transition, so the incoming Biden-Harris administration can reassess whether to move forward on them.
Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; and Cory Booker, D-N.J.; and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., wrote to Attorney General William Barr with concerns about the federal executions that he authorized to resume over the summer after 17 years. The death penalty is outlawed in 21 states and the District of Columbia. A Gallup survey released in November 2019 revealed that for the first time in 34 years, the majority of Americans (60%) said that a better punishment for murder is imprisonment for life, without the possibility of parole, rather than the death penalty.
“President-elect Biden’s plan for strengthening America’s commitment to justice includes the elimination of the federal death penalty and Vice-President-elect Harris is an original cosponsor of legislation we have introduced to eliminate the federal death penalty,” the lawmakers wrote. “A record number of Americans voted in favor of [Biden and Harris] and they deserve an opportunity to implement their policy agenda without the Trump administration rushing to take preemptive and irreversible steps.”
They also noted the death penalty “disproportionately” affects people of color and low-income earners. There have been seven executions of federal inmates since July and three are scheduled between November and December, including one for the first woman in 67 years. The woman’s two lawyers are also trying to delay her execution because they caught the coronavirus amid traveling for the case and “are now both bedridden and unable to work,” NBC News reported on Saturday. They “had been working remotely, which was the policy of the federal public defenders' office, until Barr set the execution date ‘with no notice to Mrs. [Lisa] Montgomery’s lawyers.’”
Prior to the pause in executions, there was one in March 2003 and two in June 2001. There weren’t any from the 1970s to 1990s, so this current situation is largely unprecedented.
The lawmakers said no executions should happen during this lame duck period, but the General Services Administration has yet to “ascertain” Biden as the winner of the presidential election, so the formal transition process has not yet started. President Trump tweeted (incorrectly) on Monday morning that he won the election as his campaign continues to pursue legal challenges. Two days after the news networks and Associated Press determined Biden was the winner, Barr told federal prosecutors they can investigate specific “vote tabulation irregularities,” but 16 assistant U.S. attorneys assigned to the initiative said they didn’t find any issues and urged him to rescind the memo, The Washington Post reported on Friday.
The upcoming executions will all take place before the Electoral College meets on December 14 to vote on a winner of the presidential election.
Biden’s campaign platform on criminal justice reform cited that since 1973 over 160 individuals sentenced to death have been exonerated later on. “Because we cannot ensure we get death penalty cases right every time, Biden will work to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example,” it says. “These individuals should instead serve life sentences without probation or parole.”
The American Civil Liberties Union––which has been critical of the Trump administration for carrying out executions (all of which occur at a high-security federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana) during the pandemic –– also asked the administration to stop the upcoming ones.
“We know that the federal executions that have taken place this year earlier this year were likely contributors to the COVID-19 outbreaks at the Terre Haute prison and the surrounding community,” Cynthia Roseberry, deputy director of policy for the ACLU's Justice Division, said in a statement to Government Executive on Monday. Also, “extensive data shows the death penalty is racist, arbitrary and error prone. Justice demands that the deeply flawed system of federal executions be discontinued.”
The Federal Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on the letter and the Justice Department did not respond for comment.