Civil rights groups are pushing Biden to fulfill promise of ending the death penalty

Politics

President Joe Biden holds a face mask as he participates in a CNN town hall at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, February 16, 2021.

Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

President Joe Biden is facing increasing pressure from civil rights groups and liberal members of Congress to fulfill his pledge to end the death penalty.

While total abolition of the death penalty would require an act of Congress, activists say there are immediate steps that Biden can take to roll back the practice, which was restarted at the federal level under former President Donald Trump. Nearly a month into Biden’s term, they are pushing him to take action.

“He has the authority to do a lot to limit this punishment and make it much harder for a future administration,” said Kristina Roth, an advocate at Amnesty International USA. “We think it’s important during this early period of his administration to remind him what authority he has.”

Biden is the first president to openly oppose the death penalty and has repeatedly said that criminal justice reform is a top priority of his administration.

One of the steps Biden could take unilaterally would be to commute the sentences of the 49 people on federal death row. In a letter sent earlier this month, 82 organizations, including many rights groups, pressed Biden to do just that.

“As a candidate, you campaigned on a platform centered on strengthening ‘America’s commitment to justice,’ based on the core beliefs that we must eliminate racial, income-based, and other disparities, and create a criminal legal system focused not on cruelty and punishment, but on ‘redemption and rehabilitation,'” the organizations, led by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, wrote in the Feb. 9 letter.

“Now, as president, you have the unique ability to begin effectuating these policy goals immediately by using your executive clemency powers to commute the sentences of the individuals on federal death row today,” they wrote.

Michael Gwin, a White House spokesman, said in an email on Wednesday that there was “nothing new for us to add at the moment.” Gwin pointed to a portion of Biden’s campaign platform, still available online, in which he pledged to “work to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example.”

Roth said that civil rights groups and the White House are engaged in “ongoing communication to ensure our calls are being heard.”

Crime bill and an execution spree

If Biden fulfills his pledge to roll back the death penalty it will represent a remarkable evolution from his days in the Senate, where he pushed hard and successfully for tougher penalties on crime, including strengthening capital punishment.

Biden expanded the number of crimes for which the death penalty could be used via his 1994 crime bill, a legacy that drew sharp criticism from the left during the Democratic primaries. As president, he has pledged to push for greater racial equity in the justice system.

The campaign to eliminate the death penalty has spanned decades and presidencies. Former President Barack Obama at times seemed on the cusp of calling for the end of the death penalty — he ordered the Justice Department to review the matter — but ultimately disappointed activists.

Under Trump, the matter came to a head. In July 2019, the Republican restarted the federal death penalty program, which had lain dormant for nearly two decades. The administration executed 13 people who had been sentenced to death, including some just days before Biden took office.

In addition to asking Biden to immediately commute federal death sentences, activists have pressed the Biden administration to completely dismantle the execution chamber used to kill those on federal death row in Terre Haute, Indiana. They also want Biden to rescind the Trump-era lethal injection protocol and prohibit federal prosecutors from seeking the death penalty.

Cassandra Stubbs, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s capital punishment project, said that when the federal death penalty was restarted under Trump it showed the “same problems that we’ve seen in states.”

“It’s racist, applied to people who have suffered unspeakable trauma and mental illness and who were tried before juries who never heard the full story,” she said.

Stubbs noted that the Trump administration’s use of the death penalty during the era of Covid-19 also inflicted further harm, spreading disease to those involved in the execution as well as observers and journalists.

“Our government was willing to spread illness and death in order to carry out these executions,” Stubbs said.

The Associated Press found that the Trump administration’s execution spree likely qualified as a coronavirus superspreader event.

Push for change

A number of bills have already been produced by Democrats that would end the federal death penalty. Reps. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., have each unveiled bills that would end the practice. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has said he plans to introduce compatible legislation in the Senate.

It’s not clear if those bills will gain traction among Republicans, though. Espaillat, speaking with reporters on Wednesday, said he believed his legislation “could also be a bipartisan bill.”

“I know that a lot of my Republican colleagues recognize that this is wrong,” he said.

Some state-level Republican elected officials have moved away from the party’s embrace of the death penalty, though for reasons that often diverge from those of activists on the left.

Republican Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, for instance, told the state legislature last year that he was considering a moratorium on capital punishment as a result of its costliness.

“It costs us around a million dollars every time that is brought up. These are just luxuries, luxuries, that we will no longer be able to afford,” Gordon said, according to the Associated Press.

Another Republican governor, Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio, resisted when local reporters sought to characterize him as a death penalty supporter last year. His administration has declared an “unofficial moratorium” on executions, he told the Associated Press in December.

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