Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a halt on all federal executions on Thursday, citing a review of the Justice Department’s policy.
The news comes nearly a year after former President Donald Trump began a federal execution spree that opponents slammed as “out of step” with past administrations. Between July 2020 and January 2021, the Trump government killed 13 individuals, six of whom were executed during the lame-duck session after President Joe Biden’s election.
“The Department of Justice 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,” Garland said in Thursday’s announcement. “That obligation has special force in capital cases.”
The memo states that Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco will lead a review of the previous administration’s policies for administering the lethal injection at the federal level.
When former Attorney General William Barr announced the resumption of federal executions in 2019, such procedures were put in place. There has been a pause in federal executions since 2003, when the government executed Louis Jones Jr., who raped and murdered Army Pvt. Tracie McBride in 1995.
However, Barr’s Justice Department was sued over its intention to utilise a single medication – pentobarbital – in its lethal injection protocol. The federal government is required by law to adopt the same method of execution as the state where the crime was committed, and most states use a multi-drug cocktail.
Garland directed the Justice Department to investigate the danger of pain and suffering connected with the use of only pentobarbital, as well as regulations allowing for other means of execution and speeding executions. The department must engage with federal and state authorities, medical specialists, and experienced capital lawyers as part of the enquiry.
Ruth Friedman, director of the Federal Capital Habeas Project, welcomed Thursday’s news.
“A moratorium on federal executions is one step in the right direction, but it is not enough,” she said. “We know the federal death penalty system is marred by racial bias, arbitrariness, over-reaching, and grievous mistakes by defense lawyers and prosecutors that make it broken beyond repair.
“President Biden, with the support of the Department of Justice, can and should commute all federal death sentences to address these problems. Otherwise, this moratorium will just leave these intractable issues unremedied and pave the way for another unconscionable bloodbath like we saw last year.”
As senator, Biden supported the use of the death penalty, but in recent years his stance has shifted toward abolition.
“Since 1973, over 160 individuals in this country have been sentenced to death and were later exonerated,” he tweeted in July 2019. “Because we can’t ensure that we get these cases right every time, we must eliminate the death penalty.”
The announcement comes two weeks after the Justice Department requested the United States Supreme Court to reinstate the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of two brothers responsible for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing that killed three people. In July 2020, a federal appeals court reversed the sentence, ordering a fresh penalty phase trial.