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Attorney General Merrick Garland has imposed a moratorium on scheduling federal executions, the Department of Justice announced on Thursday. The department will review its policies and procedures on capital punishment, following a wave of federal executions carried out under the Trump administration.
In a memo to the Justice Department, Garland justified his decision to halt the deeply controversial practice, citing factors including its capricious application and outsized impact on people of color.
“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. That obligation has special force in capital cases,” Garland said in the memo.
“Serious concerns have been raised about the continued use of the death penalty across the country, including arbitrariness in its application, disparate impact on people of color, and the troubling number of exonerations in capital and other serious cases,” he added. “Those weighty concerns deserve careful study and evaluation by lawmakers.”
Under former President Donald Trump, the federal government carried out its first executions in a generation last year, with 13 inmates put to death in Trump’s final year in office. That included an unprecedented number of federal killings carried out in the last days of his single-term presidency, bucking a nearly century-and-a-half practice of pausing capital punishments during the presidential exchange of power.
Then-Attorney General William Barr said the executions were being carried out in cases of “staggeringly brutal murders.” Civil rights activists had rallied to spare the lives of those on death row. Concerns of how humanely the sentences could be carried out, as well as the recent exonerations of a number of death row inmates, were major factors in the demonstrations to cease state-sanctioned killings.
“The Department must take care to scrupulously maintain our commitment to fairness and humane treatment in the administration of existing federal laws governing capital sentences,” Garland said in his memo on Thursday.
President Biden, who nominated Garland to the top law enforcement post, opposes capital punishment. During his campaign, Biden pledged to pass legislation to end the federal death penalty.
Some congressional Democrats have been working on such legislation, but no action has been taken. Some progressives and activists opposed to capital punishment had been expressing frustration that they have not seen more movement on the issue from Biden.
“A moratorium on federal executions is one step in the right direction, but it is not enough,” said Ruth Friedman, director of the Federal Capital Habeas Project. “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.”
Friedman said Biden should commute all federal death sentences, warning that a pause alone “will just leave these intractable issues unremedied and pave the way for another unconscionable bloodbath like we saw last year.”
NPR’s Carrie Johnson contributed reporting.