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February 9, 2021

Coalition of civil rights groups calls on Prez Biden to commute all federal death sentences and halt capital activity

As reported in this AP piece, "civil rights and advocacy organizations are calling on the Biden administration to immediately halt federal executions after an unprecedented run of capital punishment under President Donald Trump and to commute the sentences of inmates on federal death row."  Here is more (with links from the original):

The organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and 80 others, sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Tuesday morning, urging that he act immediately “on your promise of ensuring equality, equity, and justice in our criminal legal system.”

Biden has been systematically undoing many Trump administration policies on climate, immigration and ethics rules. Although he is against the death penalty and has said he will work to end its use, Biden has not commented on what he will do with Trump’s unprecedented push for the federal death penalty.  The Bureau of Prisons carried out more executions under Trump, 13, than any previous president....  The groups say Biden should step in immediately and take action, as his administration works to establish priorities, address systemic racism and overhaul parts of the criminal justice system.

In the letter, the civil rights groups said the use of the death penalty “continues to perpetuate patterns of racial and economic oppression endemic to the American criminal legal system.”...  “Any criminal legal system truly dedicated to the pursuit of justice should recognize the humanity of all those who come into contact with it, not sanction the use of a discriminatory practice that denies individuals their rights, fails to respect their dignity, and stands in stark contrast to the fundamental values of our democratic system of governance,” the letter said....

The groups told Biden he has the power to dismantle the death chamber building at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana — the small building where the 13 executions were carried out in six months — in addition to rescinding the Justice Department’s execution protocols and a regulation that no longer required federal death sentences to be carried out by lethal injection and cleared the way to use other methods like firing squads and poison gas.

They also said Biden could prohibit prosecutors from seeking death sentences and commute the sentences of the several dozen inmates on federal death row.  Far-reaching steps by Biden, the letter said, would also preclude any future president from restarting federal executions.  Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, halted federal executions but never cleared death row or sought to strike the death penalty from U.S. statutes.  That left the door open for Trump to resume them.  “We … recognize that if there is one thing that the waning months of the Trump presidency also made clear, it is the horrendous implications of simply having an informal federal death penalty moratorium in place,” it said.

Cynthia Roseberry, the ACLU’s deputy director of policy for the justice division, said she knows that Biden has a lot on his plate and that he should be given some time to act on the death penalty.  But she said the groups wanted to assure Biden “that there is broad based support to be bold” on the issue and that some don’t require complicated policy initiatives or new legislation.  “These things,” Roseberry said, “can be accomplished with the stroke of the pen.”

The full ACLU press release about this letter is available at this link, and the full letter from the coaltion is available at this link.   

I noted here in response to last month's similar letter by 37 Democratic members of Congress that the call for commuting all of federal death row came with a request to "ensur[e] that each person is provided with an adequate and unique re-sentencing process."  This new call here to "immediately commuting the sentences of all individuals under federal sentence of death" does not alternative sentencing with any specificity, but it obviously avoids advocating that Prez Biden converting death sentences into life without parole sentences.  This is yet another reminder that modern adocacy against LWOP sentences, which often calls LWOP just a death sentence by another name, serves to complicate a bit advocacy against capital punishment.

February 9, 2021 at 10:29 AM | Permalink


Given commentary during the campaign (regarding the push to complete as many executions as possible before Trump left office) I am actually somewhat surprised Biden has not already done so. It would be easy, give him some good press for a bit and I don't see it being particularly politically costly (the people who would complain, such as myself, weren't going to support him anyway).

Actually, I suppose that could be a reason not to do it right now. He can halt progress toward any more executions without commuting any sentences for the time being then grant a general DP commutation during the next election cycle.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Feb 9, 2021 7:03:32 PM

As I've pointed out previously on this blog, I really doubt it wouldn't be "particularly politically costly" to implement this proposal. Obviously, Biden's a savvy operator, and he's been in the game longer than most, so if his cost/benefit analysis had come to the same result, he would've done it already. But I see the proposal as being quite fraught with peril.

If nothing else—as I've noted—federal death row currently includes both Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Dylann Roof. The delicate political nature of those two cases pretty much goes without saying. Moreover, those were DP cases brought under Obama, so in essence, Biden would be undoing the work of his most recent Democratic predecessor, but also the very person with whom he served as VP. Finally, both of those cases are still on appeal, and at least for Tsarnaev, there's a possibility of mooting the DP issue via DOJ maneuvering at SCOTUS.

I'm quite skeptical that Biden is merely biding (couldn't resist!) his time to save the DP commutations for another election cycle. He probably views that move as a last resort. The path of least resistance for him is to implement a moratorium—express or implicit—while also hoping/pushing for a lasting solution via Congress, i.e., repeal of some kind. Obviously SCOTUS is going to be of no help absent court packing and/or the untimely demise of at least two reactionary Justices.

Posted by: hardreaders | Feb 9, 2021 11:21:04 PM

It is pretty easy to write the attack ad if Biden commutes the death sentence of Dylan Roof.

Posted by: William C Jockusch | Feb 10, 2021 7:24:21 AM

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