Like ‘slavery and lynching’: Democrats call on Biden to abolish federal death penalty, commute sentences


A group of three dozen House Democrats signed a letter Friday asking President Joe Biden to commute the death sentences of all federal death row inmates and work to dismantle the form of punishment at the federal level.

The plea comes on the heels of 13 executions carried out by the Trump administration since July, a legacy the Democrats described as “one of carnage and unrestrained violence.” They called on Biden, who has voiced his opposition to the death penalty, to emphasize rehabilitation for offenders in his Justice Department, not execution.

FILE – Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

“The fact of the matter is that these death sentences are not about justice,” read the letter written by Reps. Cori Bush of Missouri and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts. “They are about who has institutional power and who doesn’t.

“Like slavery and lynching did before it, the death penalty perpetuates cycles of trauma, violence and state-sanctioned murder in Black and brown communities. We urge the Biden-Harris administration to correct these injustices using every tool available, including the extraordinary power to grant clemency.

“With the stroke of the pen, you can end the death penalty and establish a clear commitment to justice and equity.”

An analysis by the Death Penalty Information Center released in September found that of the 57 people on federal death row at the time, more than half — 34 — were persons of color. Persons of color make up about 24% of the general U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

There are now 50 people on federal death row, including a man whose death sentence was overturned Tuesday in a ruling that could be appealed by the U.S. Justice Department.

The plea to Biden comes weeks after Pressley and Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois introduced a bill to abolish the death penalty at the federal level. That legislation, the Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act of 2021, has bipartisan support.

Until July, the federal government hadn’t carried out any executions in 17 years. Former President Barack Obama instituted a moratorium on the punishment during his administration, but former President Donald Trump revived it in a stretch of executions that included six that took place after he was voted out of office.

While Biden supported the use of the death penalty during his Senate career, his stance on the issue has shifted toward abolition.

“Since 1973, over 160 individuals in this country have been sentenced to death and were later exonerated,” he tweeted in July 2019. “Because we can’t ensure that we get these cases right every time, we must eliminate the death penalty.”

In the first three days of his administration, Biden signed 30 executive orders mostly targeting efforts to battle the COVID-19 pandemic and economic fallout. It’s unclear how long it might take from his administration to pursue any presidential orders or legislation on the death penalty.

DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham said members of Congress — like Pressley, Bush and Durbin — will likely push for action early in Biden’s term.

“Never in American history have we seen so clear an example of the abuse of the death penalty by the federal government,” he said in reference to the Trump administration’s 13 executions.

“So while the issue is fresh and before the smoke from this unparalleled series of questionable executions clears, they may think this is a good time to act.”

Dunham warned that while there’s strong bipartisan support to abolish the death penalty, the issue doesn’t fall strictly along party lines.

“Democratic control of the House and tie-breaking capacity in the Senate does not mean that repeal can be accomplished without bipartisanship.”

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