By David M. Greenwald
The unprecedented wave of executions by the federal government at the end of the Trump administration, capped off by three in the last week, has forced a level of urgency on the part of reformers calling for the end to the federal death penalty.
The pressure ramped up even higher on Monday as a bipartisan group of nearly 100 criminal justice leaders—including over 50 current elected local prosecutors—sent a letter to President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris urging them to take all actions within their power to immediately and definitively end the death penalty in the United States.
The letter, according to a release from Fair and Justice Prosecution, “urges the new administration to take multifaceted and lasting steps that future administrations cannot readily undo, to include: commuting the sentences of all those on federal death row and withdrawing current death penalty warrants, dismantling the death chamber at Terre Haute, encouraging DOJ leadership to instruct all federal prosecutors to not seek the death penalty in future cases, supporting and incentivizing state efforts to end capital punishment, and supporting legislation to end the federal death penalty.
“Over the past year, we witnessed thirteen federal executions, all an assault on human dignity and an affront to American values,” the letter notes. “This killing spree laid bare the unacceptable injustices embedded in our nation’s use of the death penalty: we watched as our government killed people with severe intellectual disabilities, people who had worked for decades to take responsibility for their crimes and rehabilitate, and a woman with an unspeakable history of abuse and trauma.”
The letter continues: “These tragedies demand bold and definitive action.”
They argue, “(A)t a time when racial injustice, trust in law enforcement, and our nation’s reputation in the eyes of the world are all in dire need of repair, anything short of these steps would fail to move our nation forward or attend to these pressing crises. We should not leave the lives of all people still on federal death row — and many more who will become entangled with the federal system — in the hands of future administrations.
“Nor should we continue to part company with other Western democracies in our willingness to implement a failed death penalty system. We ask you to choose justice, mercy, and compassion for our nation.”
“The death penalty is an archaic and failed institution that is rooted in racism and too often punishes the innocent. The previous administration’s cruel and ruthless killing spree undermined the already-fragile trust in the justice system and revealed that a simple pause on executions is not nearly enough,” said Miriam Krinsky, Executive Director of Fair and Just Prosecution, the organizer of the letter and a former federal prosecutor who also signed on to the letter.
She added, “President Biden is the first president to openly oppose capital punishment, and we now have an opportunity to permanently end the federal death penalty, once and for all.”
The letter and push to end the federal death penalty comes at a point in time—the actions of the Trump administration aside—when the death penalty has come under sustained fire and is at its lowest levels of support since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s.
More and more states have either banned the death penalty or stopped its use.
Meanwhile, data continue to show that “we have not executed the worst of the worst, but often instead put to death the unluckiest of the unlucky – the impoverished, the poorly represented, and the most broken.”
The death penalty has been disproportionately used on people of color and the poor.
“Race also plays a deeply disturbing and unacceptable role in the application of the death penalty. Studies have documented that defendants of color are disproportionately likely to be sentenced to die – this is particularly and uniquely true when the victim is white,” the letter notes.
In fact, “people of color have accounted for a disproportionate 43% of executions in the United States since 1976, and 55% of defendants currently awaiting execution are people of color.”
And not just a disparity by defendant, but also victim.
“(T)here are stark disparities in executions relative to the race of the victim: since 1976, a total of 21 white defendants were executed for crimes perpetrated against a Black victim; in contrast, in that same time period, 297 Black defendants were executed for crimes perpetrated against a white victim. Strikingly, while about 76% of all death penalty cases involve white victims, only one-half of all murder victims are white,” the letter continues.
“During my tenure as U.S. Attorney, my community entrusted me to pursue justice and promote public safety,” said William B. Cummings, former United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia and a signatory on the letter. “Abolishing the death penalty is a critical step in building trust between law enforcement and the people we serve, and that trust is integral to keeping our communities safe.”
The United States was one of only 20 countries, and the only developed Western democracy, to use the death penalty in 2019 and is far more likely to impose the punishment in cases involving Black defendants or white victims. Since 1973, at least 174 people on death row have been exonerated, while the National Academy of Sciences estimates that over 4 percent of death row prisoners are innocent.
“It has never been clearer that executing fellow Americans is inhumane, immoral and ineffective at deterring crime,” said Joseph R. Grodin, former California Supreme Court Associate Justice and another signatory on the letter. “Federal leadership is needed now more than ever to finally rid our nation of this failed and destructive process and restore our credibility in the eyes of the world.”
Among the signers of the letter are California DAs—Diana Becton (Contra Costa), Chesa Boudin (San Francisco), George Gascón (Los Angeles), Jeff Rosen (Santa Clara), and former LA DA, Gil Garcetti.
—David M. Greenwald reporting