Letter Urges President Biden to Make Good on his Campaign Promises to End the Federal Death Penalty

WASHINGTON — A group of 82 organizations signed on to a letter sent to President Biden today asking him to “act on [his] promise of ensuring equality, equity, and justice in our criminal legal system by immediately commuting the sentences of all individuals under federal sentence of death, and reinstating the federal moratorium on the use of the death penalty.” The letter was circulated by the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The letter comes after the Trump administration rushed through 13 executions in six months, actions which Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor condemned in no uncertain terms, saying: “this is not justice.” These executions took place during a pandemic, and reporters, lawyers, spiritual advisors, and prison staff all developed documented cases of COVID-19 after attending executions, as Terre Haute Correctional Complex shot up to be the Bureau of Prisons facility with the most cases of COVID-19 in the country.

“The execution spree we saw under Donald Trump was unprecedented, unlawful, and unjust,” said Cynthia Roseberry, deputy director of policy, ACLU’s Justice Division. “They senselessly spread COVID-19 and defied the laws and norms that were intended to act as guardrails. As states around the country are increasingly turning their backs on the death penalty, it is imperative that President Biden take every step in his power to ensure that the atrocities we saw under the Trump administration can never take place again. That means issuing a moratorium and granting clemency to the 49 people on the federal death row.”

“This letter, which has been signed on to by the leading organizations in the death penalty abolition movement and civil and human rights community, sends a clear message to President Biden that we are watching and ready to welcome bold action towards abolition from this administration,” said Kristina Roth, senior advocate for criminal justice programs at Amnesty International USA. “The federal death penalty is riddled with the same problems of racism, error, and arbitrariness that the death penalty in the states are. It is used exclusively on people who cannot afford good legal representation. It’s an embarrassment to our country and our legal system. President Biden must end this barbaric punishment once and for all.”

“One only has to look at the 13 executions that the Trump administration rushed through to be reminded of all the reasons the federal death penalty must be repealed,” said Lisa Cylar Barrett, director of policy at the NAACP LDF. “In six months, they killed two Black men who committed crimes as teenagers. They killed victims of serious sexual trauma and violence. The steamrolled the wishes of a sovereign tribal nation. All but one of the people they put to death killed white people. There is no way to extricate the federal death penalty from the racism that taints it, and the stakes here are life and death. We must end this system once and for all.”

“The tremendous outpouring of support for this letter represents a backlash to the senseless killing spree we saw under the Trump administration,” said Sakira Cook, senior director of the justice reform program at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “The actions of that administration underscored the cruelty and injustice of the death penalty, which has no place in the United States. The Biden administration must acknowledge the loss and trauma these past six months have caused for so many people — advocates, lawyers, family members, and prison staff who have been forced to carry out these killings. It must ensure that this can never happen again.”

The letter asks the Biden-Harris administration to take the following steps, which are all within its power:

  • Ensure that all people currently under federal sentence of death have their sentences commuted or reduced;
  • Issue a federal moratorium on federal executions;
  • Dismantle the federal death chamber at FCC Terre Haute;
  • Rescind the lethal injection protocol; rescind the “Manner of Execution” regulation that took effect in December 2020; rescind internal DOJ guidelines on litigating death row cases that took effect in December 2020;
  • Establish clear executive guidelines that prohibit federal prosecutors from seeking the death penalty; and
  • Withdraw authorization for all pending death penalty trial cases.

The letter states: “By taking immediate action to commute the sentences of the 49 individuals on federal death row, you have the ability to show that the Biden-Harris administration will govern with mercy and will work to put the might of the federal government behind policies that recognize, reflect, and respect the dignity, humanity, and rights of all individuals.”

The full letter is online, here.

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