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AG Merrick Garland issues moratorium on federal executions

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department will review death penalty policies put in place by the Trump administration. Pool Photo by Win McNamee/UPI
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department will review death penalty policies put in place by the Trump administration. Pool Photo by Win McNamee/UPI | License Photo

July 1 (UPI) -- Attorney General Merrick Garland on Thursday imposed a moratorium on all federal executions amid a review of the Justice Department's policies.

The announcement comes nearly one year after the beginning of a federal execution spree under former President Donald Trump that critics panned as "out of step" with previous administrations. Between July 2020 and January 2021, the Trump administration executed 13 people, including six during the lame-duck session after President Joe Biden had been elected.

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"The Department of Justice must ensure that everyone in the federal criminal justice system is not only afforded the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States, but is also treated fairly and humanely," Garland said in Thursday's announcement. "That obligation has special force in capital cases."

The memo states that Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco will lead a review of the previous administration's policies for administering the lethal injection at the federal level.

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Those policies were put in place in 2019 when former Attorney General William Barr announced a resumption of federal executions. There had been a hiatus on federal executions since 2003, when the government administered the lethal injection to Louis Jones Jr., who raped and killed Army Pvt. Tracie McBride in 1995.

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Barr's Justice Department faced lawsuits, though, over its plan to use a single drug -- pentobarbital -- in its lethal injection protocol. Under federal law, the U.S. government must use the same execution method as the state where the crime was committed and most states use a multi-drug cocktail.

Garland ordered the Justice Department to review the risk of pain and suffering associated with the use of just pentobarbital as well as a policies allowing other execution methods and expediting executions. As part of the review, the department must consult with federal and state agencies, medical experts and experienced capital counsel.

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Ruth Friedman, director of the Federal Capital Habeas Project, welcomed Thursday's news.

"A moratorium on federal executions is one step in the right direction, but it is not enough," she said. "We know the federal death penalty system is marred by racial bias, arbitrariness, over-reaching, and grievous mistakes by defense lawyers and prosecutors that make it broken beyond repair.

"President Biden, with the support of the Department of Justice, can and should commute all federal death sentences to address these problems. Otherwise, this moratorium will just leave these intractable issues unremedied and pave the way for another unconscionable bloodbath like we saw last year."

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As senator, Biden supported the use of the death penalty, but in recent years his stance 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."

Thursday's announcement comes two weeks after the Justice Department asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate the death sentence for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of two brothers responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing that killed three people in 2013. A federal appeals court overturned the sentence in July 2020, ordering a new penalty phase trial.

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