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Democrats appeal to Biden: Abolish the death penalty on Day One

As executions have picked up in the waning days of the Trump administration, calls grow to end an "unjust, racist, and defective" practice.
Image: Federal Execution protest
A protester outside the Federal Execution Chamber in Terre Haute, Ind., last week.Austen Leake / The Tribune-Star via AP

With three more federal inmates scheduled to be executed next month — days before President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration — more than 40 members of Congress and members-elect are asking him to sign an executive order to end the federal death penalty on his first day in office.

"With a stroke of your pen, you can stop all federal executions, prohibit United States Attorneys from seeking the death penalty, dismantle death row at FCC Terre Haute, and call for the resentencing of people who are currently sentenced to death," dozens of Democratic lawmakers, led by Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., wrote in a letter Tuesday to Biden, referring to the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana, where the three inmates are scheduled to be executed.

"Each of these elements are critical to help prevent greater harm and further loss of life," they said.

Biden campaigned in support of a moratorium on the federal death penalty, favoring instead life sentences without probation or parole.

The Democratic lawmakers wrote that they believe capital punishment is "unjust, racist, and defective," and that there remain glaring disparities in how it is administered: While Black people make up 13 percent of the nation's population, they represent 42 percent of inmates on death row and 35 percent of those executed, according to the NAACP.

Pressley introduced legislation last year to ban the death penalty as Attorney General William Barr directed the Department of Justice to restore capital punishment in the federal system after past administrations had put it on hold for almost two decades. Barr has said that the executions are meant to bring justice to victims and survivors and that those scheduled for death are among "the worst criminals."

Ten federal inmates have been executed since July. Critics have argued that imposing death sentences during the coronavirus pandemic is unsafe, particularly when it requires inmates, their families and legal representatives, and teams of federal execution specialists to travel to the prison in Terre Haute.

Among those executed this year were the only Native American on federal death row and the youngest inmate, based on age when the crime occurred, to be put to death by the federal government in nearly seven decades. Among those scheduled to be executed next month is the first woman to be put to death by the federal government in almost seven decades.

Figures compiled by the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center show that despite the return of federal capital punishment this year, a total of 17 people were executed between the federal and state levels this year, fewer than at any time in the past 37 years. Experts say it's due in part to states suspending executions because of the pandemic, as well as the abolishing or general reduction of capital punishment cases among states.