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House Democrats seek answers on federal executions from Justice Department

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House Democrats seek answers on federal executions from Justice Department
House Democrats sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking him to provide them with an update on the Justice Department's death penalty policies. Photo by Leigh Vogel/UPI | License Photo

Dec. 16 (UPI) -- House Democrats on Thursday asked the Justice Department whether the Biden administration plans to resume federal executions using a single-drug lethal injection protocol.

Reps. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Jamie Raskin, D-Md., sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking the Justice Department to provide an update on its policies by Dec. 23.

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The request comes nearly five months after the Biden administration issued a moratorium on federal executions pending a review of the Justice Department's policy to use a single drug, pentobarbital, in its lethal injections.

Despite the halt -- and President Joe Biden's stated preference for abolition -- the Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to reinstate the death sentence for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in June after it was overturned.

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"Given its recent actions, we are concerned that DOJ may renew its efforts to obtain pentobarbital from non-[Food and Drug Administration]-regulated pharmacies for use in future federal executions," the letter read. "This would be consistent with the actions of certain states that have continued using single-drug pentobarbital in state executions."

Former Attorney General William Barr announced plans in 2019 to resume federal executions after an unofficially moratorium since 2003, when the government administered the lethal injection to Louis Jones Jr., who raped and killed Army Pvt. Tracie McBride in 1995.

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.

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The Trump administration ultimately executed 13 federal death row prisoners between July 2020 and January 2021. Those executions surpass the total number of federal executions that took place between 1949 and 2019.

During his campaign for president, Biden said he opposes the death penalty, despite supporting the punishment as a senator.

"Because we cannot ensure we get death penalty cases right every time, Biden will work to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government's example," his campaign website said.

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Biden's changing views on the issue have reflected an overall decline in support for the death penalty in the United States. A Gallup poll released in November found that 54% of American adults favor the use of the death penalty as a punishment for those convicted of murder, down from 55% in 2020 and 80% in the mid-1990s.

Use of the death penalty also has dropped sharply in recent years. Eleven people were executed in the United States in 2021, down from 17 in 2020 and a high of 98 in 1999 since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. The last time there were this few executions was in 1988.

Twenty-three states have abolished the use of the death penalty, including Virginia in March.

"The death penalty grew increasingly geographically isolated in 2021 and public support dropped to its lowest levels in a half-century," said Robert Dunham, the Death Penalty Information Center's executive director.

"Virginia's repeal created a death-penalty-free zone along the U.S. Atlantic coast that now runs from the Canadian border of Maine to the northern border of the Carolinas. In the west, an execution-free zone spans the Pacific coast from Alaska to Mexico. The handful of states that continue to push for capital punishment are outliers that often disregard due process, botch executions, and dwell in the shadows of long histories of racism and a biased criminal legal system."

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