Advocates say DOJ federal execution moratorium ‘not enough’

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Anti-death penalty advocates are criticizing the Biden administration’s moratorium on federal executions as inadequate, while some conservatives are calling the move “disgraceful.”

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the moratorium “does nothing” to abolish capital punishment.

“Simply put, if the administration doesn’t repeal or commute, it isn’t taking steps to end the federal #deathpenalty,” Mr. Dunham tweeted on Thursday. “It may be making reforms, but it isn’t fulfilling the Biden campaign pledge [to do so].”

Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas said the administration’s moratorium was misguided.

“White supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans at a Bible study,” Mr. Cotton tweeted. “Merrick Garland just paused his execution. Disgraceful.”

The Witness to Innocence organization echoed Mr. Dunham’s sentiments, tweeting that the Justice Department’s action is a “step in the right direction, but not enough. Biden can and should commute fed death row.”

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland announced the moratorium Thursday night, just hours after John Hummel, who is convicted of killing his family, was executed in Texas.

The moratorium will be in place while the Justice Department conducts a review of policies and procedures implemented in the last two years by the Trump administration, which carried out the executions of 13 people, after 17 years without any federal executions.

Under the former president, officials barred the Food and Drug Administration from regulating execution methods and allowed one execution drug to be administered instead of three. The Trump administration also shortened the time period to notify prisoners of their death date, which some attorneys say made it harder to file an appeal.

Moreover, the Trump administration made it legal to use firing squads or a gas chamber for executions, a move that has been criticized as unreliable and inhumane.

Mr. Dunham criticized the scope of the new review as too “narrow.”

“If the DOJ review is as narrow as the memorandum suggests — i.e., it addresses only the things the Trump administration did to expedite executions and expand the methods available to kill federal prisoners — it barely even scratches the surface of #deathpenalty reform,” Mr. Dunham tweeted.

He said a moratorium for a “serious” review of the overall federal death penalty system “would have some symbolic value as opposed to this mini-moratorium/mini-study.”

Jen Psaki, press secretary for Mr. Biden, said at a Friday brief that the president is “is pleased to see that the attorney general is taking steps forward.”

When asked about commuting federal death sentences, Ms. Psaki said she wouldn’t speak to that while the review is ongoing.

Mr. Garland did not provide a timetable for the review, but said no prisoners will be sentenced to death or executed while it is being conducted.

“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,” Mr. Garland said in a press release. “That obligation has special force in capital cases.”

Since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S. in 1976, a total of 1,534 people have been executed in the U.S. — the vast majority being state, not federal, executions — and there are 28 people scheduled to be executed over the next few years, four of which are scheduled for this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center website.

In March, Virginia became the 23rd state to abolish capital punishment.

Opponents of capital punishment argue it disproportionately targets minorities, is inhumane, is a cost burden to taxpayers and runs the risk of killing an innocent person.

Jeff Mordock contributed to this story.

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