Progressive Lawmakers Urge Biden to Commute Sentences for Death Row Inmates, Abolish Death Penalty

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By Josue Monroy

Progressive lawmakers are spearheading a push by congressional Democrats to get newly-elected president Joe Biden to commute the sentences of all 49 federal inmates awaiting execution on death row. 

Thirty-five Democrats led by Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri and Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts signed a letter sent to President Biden urging to consider the commutations and halt the implementation of the death penalty in response to the outgoing Trump administration’s  streak of executions of death row inmates.

“Commuting the death sentences of those on death row and ensuring that each person is provided with an adequate and unique re-sentencing process is a crucial first step in remedying this grave injustice,” read the statement. 

In 2019, the Trump administration announced its plans to resume federal executions after 20 years, and in July 2020 began a string of 13 executions. Dustin Higgs, 48, became the last of the federal inmates to be executed just days before the Biden administration assumed power.

Higgs was convicted in 1996 for ordering the killings of three women in Maryland and was sentenced to death. Willis Haynes, the man who actually committed the murders was not given the death penalty. 

The lawmakers are hoping to get Biden to use his clemency powers as president to stay the executions, and take a step towards criminal justice reform. 

“We appreciate your vocal opposition to the death penalty and urge you to take swift, decisive action,” they wrote. “By exercising your clemency power, you can ensure that there would be no one left on death row to kill.”

During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden publicly stated that he opposed the death penalty and that he would work to stop federal executions, seek to abolish the death penalty at the federal level and urge states to also enact reforms.

However his support for a 1992 crime bill that he stated would “do everything but hang people for jaywalking” has long mired his reputation among progressives and criminal justice reform activists. 

In 2019, Rep. Pressley introduced H.R. 4052, a bill seekingo ban the death penalty at the federal level and re-sentencing for those currently on death row. In the wake of the recent federal executions there have been renewed calls to pass the piece of legislation and further the interests of justice. The bill also has support from Bush and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill). 

“State-sanctioned murder is not justice, and the death penalty, which kills Black and brown people disproportionately, has absolutely no place in our society,” said Pressley in a statement.

Other high-profile progressive Democrats such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn) have also shown support for the initiative and are co-sponsoring the bill. 

As Biden moves into his second week in office, it will become more clear if he is going to make good on campaign promises, and his response to the lawmakers’ calls to action will certainly be a test of that.

Josué Monroy is a 4th year International Relations major at UC Davis. He is from Santa Cruz, CA.

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