Dems Move to End Federal Death Penalty

The U.S. Capitol /
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January 12, 2021

More than 70 House and Senate Democrats announced Tuesday that they will reintroduce a bill ending the federal death penalty, enacting one of President-elect Joe Biden's campaign promises.

Spearheaded by incoming Senate majority whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and democratic socialist congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), the bill would prohibit a sentence of death for any federal offender and require the resentencing of the 55 individuals currently on federal death row.

The move comes in reaction to the scheduled executions of three federal offenders later this week (one was stayed late Monday evening with an appeal pending to the Supreme Court), part of President Donald Trump's first-in-decades slate of executions begun in July.

"There are three lives that hang in the balance this week alone," Pressley told NPR. "And this is why we reintroduced this bill this week and are urging Congress to act immediately to pass it. State-sanctioned murder is not justice."

But it also follows Biden's call during the 2020 campaign to end the death penalty through legislation, making him the first president elected in the modern era who openly supports ending capital punishment. That makes the new bill a sign that Democrats see the death penalty as part of their agenda in the new term, a move likely to spark a heated national debate over the age-old punishment.

In addition to Durbin and Pressley, the bill has the backing of 10 senators and more than 60 members of the House. The list of backers is a who's who of congressional progressives, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Ed Markey (Mass.), Cory Booker (N.J.), and Mazie Hirono (Hawaii), as well as "Squad" members Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), and newly elected Cori Bush (Mo.) and Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.).

There has been an "active conversation" with the incoming administration about the legislation, Pressley told NPR. She indicated that she would also like to see a unilateral moratorium on executions from the Biden White House, in advance of legislative abolition.

The Biden transition team has been publicly silent on its plans with regards to the death penalty. Transition press secretary T.J. Ducklo told the Associated Press that Biden "opposes the death penalty now and in the future," but declined to comment further.

But the issue has risen to increasing public attention amid Trump's efforts to restart the federal machinery of death. That process began in July 2019 when then-attorney general William Barr announced the issuance of a new federal execution protocol. But it took another year before white nationalist child murderer Daniel Lewis Lee was put to death, thanks largely to last-minute litigating by the capital defense bar. The subsequent executions, however, have amounted to the most in a single term since Dwight Eisenhower.

Trump's last few executions, carried out in the waning days of his presidency, will cast light on whatever action—or inaction—Biden takes on capital punishment once in office. That could see Biden opposing the majority of Americans, who favor capital punishment, in his first days in office—an unenviable position for a new president who has made "unity" a major theme in the days leading up to his inauguration.

Published under: Death Penalty