Activists widely expected Joe Biden to take swift action against the death penalty as the first sitting president to oppose capital punishment, especially since an unprecedented spate of executions by his predecessor ended just days before Biden took office.
Instead, the White House has been mostly silent, reports The Associated Press.
Biden hasn’t said whether he’d back a bill introduced by
fellow Democrats to strike the death penalty from U.S. statutes. He also hasn’t
protocols enabling federal executions to resume and allowing prisons
to use firing
squads if necessary, something many thought he’d do on day one.
And this week, his administration asked
the Supreme Court to reinstate the Boston Marathon bomber’s original
The hands-off approach in Washington is adding to disarray
around the death penalty nationwide as pressure increases in some conservative
states to find ways to continue executions amid shortages of
the lethal-injection drugs. Worse, some longtime death penalty observers
say, is that Biden’s silence risks sending a message that he’s OK with states
adopting alternative execution methods.
“Biden’s lack of action is unconscionable,” said Ashley
Kincaid Eve, a lawyer and activist who protested outside the Terre Haute,
Indiana, prison where the federal inmates were executed. “This is the easiest
campaign promise to keep, and the fact he refuses to keep it ... is political
His cautious approach demonstrates the
practical and political difficulties of ending or truncating capital
punishment after it’s been integral to the criminal justice system for
centuries, even as popular support for the death penalty among both Democrats
and Republicans wanes.
Support for the death penalty among Americans is at
near-historic lows after peaking in the mid-1990s and steadily declining since,
with most recent polls indicating support now hovers around 55%, according to
the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.
presidential run, but he did say on his campaign website
that he would work “to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the
federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s
That simple-sounding promise was historic because it wasn’t
just about the federal death penalty, which, before former President Donald
Trump, had been carried out just three times in the previous five decades. Then,
13 federal prisoners were executed during Trump’s last six months in
the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Biden’s promise also took direct
aim at states, which, combined, have executed
some 1,500 inmates since the 1970s; 27 states still have death penalty
But the fact that the Biden administration chose to actively
push for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s execution suggests the president’s opposition to
the death penalty isn’t as all-inclusive as many activists believed.
Justice Department lawyers said in court filings Monday that
a lower court was wrong to toss the 27-year-old’s death sentence over concerns
about the jury selection process, saying the Supreme Court should “put this
case back on track toward a just conclusion.”
White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said in an email regarding
the Tsarnaev decision that the Justice Department “has independence regarding
such decisions.” Bates added that the president “believes the Department should
return to its prior practice, and not carry out executions.”
Meanwhile, states have resorted to other means as drugs used
in lethal injections have become increasingly hard to procure. Pharmaceutical
companies in the 2000s began banning the use of their products for executions,
saying they were meant to save lives, not take them. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons
has declined to explain how it obtained pentobarbital
for the lethal injections under Trump.
Some states have refurbished electric chairs as standbys for
when lethal drugs are unavailable. On Wednesday, South Carolina halted
two executions until the state could pull together firing squads.
To the disbelief of many, Arizona went so far as to acquire
materials to make cyanide hydrogen — the poisonous gas deployed by
Nazis to kill 865,000 Jews at Auschwitz — for possible use in the state’s death
“Execution processes are becoming more and more out of touch
with core American values,” Robert Dunham, director of the Death Penalty
Information Center, said about Arizona’s purchase. “It provides a very clear
picture of what the death penalty has become in the United States.”
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