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Biden’s silence on executions adds to death penalty mess

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CHICAGO: Activists widely expected Joe Biden to crack down on the death penalty as the first sitting president to oppose capital punishment, especially since an unprecedented series of executions by his predecessor ended just days before he Biden took office.
Instead, the White House has been largely silent.
Biden has not said whether he would back a bill introduced by his fellow Democrats to remove the death penalty from US statutes. Nor has he rescinded the Trump-era protocols that allow federal executions to resume and allow prisons to use firing squads if necessary, something many thought he would do on day one.
And this week, his administration asked the Supreme Court to reinstate the Boston Marathon shooter’s original death sentence.
The hands-off approach in Washington adds to the mess around the death penalty across the country as pressure mounts in some conservative states to find ways to continue executions amid shortages of lethal injection drugs. . What’s worse, some longtime death penalty watchers say, is that Biden be quiet you risk sending a message that you agree to states adopting alternative methods of execution.
“Biden’s inaction is inconceivable,” said Ashley Kincaid Eve, a lawyer and activist who protested outside the Terre Haute, Indiana, prison where federal inmates were executed. “This is the easiest campaign promise to keep, and the fact that he refuses to keep it … is political cowardice.”
His cautious approach demonstrates the practical and political difficulties of ending or truncating capital punishment after it has been an integral part of the criminal justice system for centuries, even as popular support for the death penalty among Democrats and Republicans wanes.
Support for the death penalty among Americans is at near-record lows after peaking in the mid-1990s and steadily declining since then, and the most recent polls indicate that support is now hovering at 55%. , according to the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, DC.
Biden did not make capital punishment a prominent feature of his presidential career, but said on his campaign website that he would work “to pass legislation that eliminates the death penalty at the federal level and encourages states to follow suit. federal government”. . ”
That simple-sounding promise was historic because it wasn’t just about the federal death penalty, which, prior to former President Donald Trump, had been carried out only three times in the previous five decades. Then 13 federal prisoners were executed during Trump’s last six months in office during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Biden’s pledge also directly targeted the states that, combined, have executed some 1,500 inmates since the 1970s; 27 states still have death penalty laws.
But the fact that the Biden administration chose to actively lobby for the execution of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev suggests that the president’s opposition to the death penalty is not as comprehensive as many activists believed.
Lawyers for the Justice Department said in court documents Monday that a lower court erred in overturning the 27-year-old’s death sentence over concerns about the jury selection process, and said the Supreme Court should “get back on track. this case to a fair conclusion. ” ‘
White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in an email about Tsarnaev’s decision that the Justice Department “has independence from such decisions.” Bates added that the president “believes that the Department should return to its previous practice and not carry out executions.”
Meanwhile, states have turned to other means, as drugs used in lethal injections have become increasingly difficult to come by. Pharmaceutical companies in the 2000s began banning the use of their products for executions, saying they were meant to save lives, not take them away. The US Bureau of Prisons has declined to explain how it obtained pentobarbital for lethal injections under Trump.
Some states have restored power chairs as a backup for when lethal drugs are not available. On Wednesday, South Carolina halted two executions until the state could muster firing squads.
To the disbelief of many, Arizona even procured materials to produce hydrogen cyanide _ the poison gas deployed by the Nazis to kill 865,000 Jews at Auschwitz _ for possible use in the state’s death chamber.
“Enforcement processes are increasingly disconnected from core American values,” said Robert Dunham, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, of the Arizona purchase. “It provides a very clear picture of what the death penalty has become in America.” State ”.
Protocols implemented under Trump and not rescinded by Biden allow the United States government to employ enforcement methods sanctioned in states where a federal defendant was convicted, Dunham said. That means that, in theory, federal executioners could also use hydrogen cyanide.
Dunham said death from hydrogen cyanide stands out as exceptionally brutal, invariably leading to a “prolonged and torturous death.”
Even if there is virtually no chance that the US government will ever adopt a method of execution favored by the Nazis, Dunham said the very idea that it is theoretically possible should horrify officials in the Biden administration and stimulate them to act with an even greater sense of urgency.
“This creates another opportunity for the Biden administration to take action,” he said. “Doing nothing puts the United States on the books as authorizing these cyanide executions in some cases.”
A federal prosecutor, arguing in litigation over government execution protocols last month, insisted to a judge that the Justice Department would allow some death row inmates to choose their method of execution if they were sentenced in a state where the law allows it. .
Abe Bonowitz, director of the death penalty group Death Penalty Action, said he and other activists have spoken with administration officials and received some behind-the-scenes assurances that Biden will eventually support legislation to abolish the federal death penalty.
“We know this is not the biggest fish they have to fry right now. But we hear they will get it,” said Bonowitz, who has criticized Biden’s silence.
The president could take the path of least resistance, politically speaking, by telling his Justice Department not to schedule federal executions during his tenure. But that would not fulfill his campaign promise and leave the door open for future presidents to restart executions.
He could also use his executive powers to commute all federal death sentences to life in prison, but there is no sign of that happening. Granting a full pardon to all those sentenced to death could be politically problematic for Biden and other Democrats, who have a slim majority in both the House and Senate. Among those whose lives would be saved by such an order from Biden would be Dylann Roof, who killed nine black church members during a Bible study session in South Carolina and was the first person to be sentenced to death for a federal hate crime.
After Biden’s inauguration, the question of whether the president would act quickly to end capital punishment was a popular topic on federal death row in Terre Haute, where discussions often took place across of interconnected air vents. There’s not much talk these days, death row inmate Rejon Taylor told The Associated Press recently via the prison’s email system.
“I won’t say the skepticism has settled, but I will say that most no longer feel that immediate action will happen,” said Taylor, who was sentenced in 2008 for killing an Atlanta restaurant owner.
But most inmates, he said, do not believe they will be executed while Biden is president.
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