Running against national trends both in public opinion on capital punishment and states opting to end its use, Attorney General William Barr has cleared the way for the federal government to resume executions. After a nearly two-decade lapse in federal executions, the move, according to a Department of Justice statement to the press, brings “justice to victims of the most horrific crimes.”
Mr. Barr has further directed the acting director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Hugh Hurwitz, “to schedule the executions of five death-row inmates convicted of murdering, and in some cases torturing and raping, the most vulnerable in our society—children and the elderly.”
The attorney general ordered the B.O.P. to adopt a proposed addendum to the Federal Execution Protocol that will allow executions in the federal system to resume, “which closely mirrors protocols utilized by several states, including currently Georgia, Missouri, and Texas.”
According to the Justice Department, the new protocol replaces the three-drug procedure previously used in federal executions with a single drug—pentobarbital. According to the D.O.J., since 2010, 14 states have used pentobarbital in over 200 executions, and federal courts, including the Supreme Court, have repeatedly upheld the use of pentobarbital in executions as consistent with the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
“The move by the administration to resume capital punishment after two decades is simply wrongheaded. As Catholics, we’re unconditionally pro-life, and this move is an affront to the sanctity and sacredness of human life.”
“Congress has expressly authorized the death penalty through legislation adopted by the people’s representatives in both houses of Congress and signed by the President,” the attorney general said. “Under administrations of both parties, the Department of Justice has sought the death penalty against the worst criminals, including these five murderers, each of whom was convicted by a jury of his peers after a full and fair proceeding. The Justice Department upholds the rule of law—and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”
Speaking for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Most Reverend Frank J. Dewane, bishop of Venice, Fla., and chair of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, issued a statement in reaction to Mr. Barr’s decision:
In 2015 Pope Francis, echoing the views of his predecessors, called for ‘the global abolition of the death penalty.’ He went on to state that, ‘[A] just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.’
The Catholic Bishops of the United States have echoed this call for many years, including their 2005 statement, “A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death.” In light of these long held and strongly maintained positions, I am deeply concerned by the announcement by the United States Justice Department that it will once again turn, after many years, to the death penalty as a form of punishment, and urge instead that these Federal officials be moved by God’s love, which is stronger than death, and abandon the announced plans for executions.
Catholic death penalty abolitionist Helen Prejean, C.S.J., was on her way to Alaska for celebrations commemorating 62 years without the death penalty in that state when she learned about the Mr. Barr’s plan to restart executions later this year. She called it “disheartening” to learn that “the administration has chosen to follow the death road, when the life road calls us to work for justice for all.”
In a statement released to the press on July 25, she said, “For decades we have been gradually shutting down the machinery of death until it is rarely used, a geographical freak practiced by outlier counties. And now, here we have the federal government revving up the death machine.
“The seemingly measured statement from the D.O.J. belies the fact that this is a rush to kill: they plan three executions in one week using a new, untested—and not yet approved—lethal injection protocol.
Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy is the executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, a national organization working to end the death penalty that works closely with the U.S.C.C.B. “The move by the administration to resume capital punishment after two decades is simply wrongheaded,” she said. “It promotes a culture of death rather than a culture of life. As Catholics, we’re unconditionally pro-life, and this move is an affront to the sanctity and sacredness of human life.
“The death penalty has been falling out of favor with the American public,” Ms. Vaillancourt Murphy said. “The county has been moving in that direction for 10 years, so this declaration by the attorney general is contrary to the way the country is moving.”
Sister Helen Prejean: “We know that the death penalty is deeply flawed, with a terrible history of racism in its implementation and an equally terrible history of errors, resulting in many innocents on death row.”
Ms. Vaillancourt Murphy said state-by-state momentum against the death penalty continues to build. In Philadelphia, District Attorney Larry Krasner is asking the state supreme court to declare the death penalty in Pennsylvania unconstitutional, arguing that it is applied in a racist and capricious manner and discriminates against low-income defendents.
Washington State abolished the death penalty in 2018, and New Hampshire repealed it in May. California, which has the highest number of people on death row in the nation, declared a moratorium in March. “For the last couple of years there’ve been less than 50 death sentences and fewer than 30 executions,” Ms. Vaillancourt Murphy said. “We just keep decreasing on all fronts.”
“The fact that the administration is moving in this direction” comes as a surprise, she said. “It seems to be unthinkable, untimely and not reflective of the way the rest of the country is rethinking this practice.”
Public support for capital punishment peaked in 1994 at 80 percent but has been declining steadily since then. According to Gallup, public support for the death penalty——56 percent were in favor last year—has reached lows not seen since 1972. Ms. Vaillancourt Murphy noted that the attorney general’s announcement was made just a few days before the anniversary of Pope Francis’ dramatic refutation of the death penalty and the church’s recasting of Catholic catechism on capital punishment. On Aug. 2, 2018, Pope Francis declared that the use of the death penalty was inconsistent with Catholic teaching, calling it “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
“We know that the death penalty is deeply flawed, with a terrible history of racism in its implementation and an equally terrible history of errors, resulting in many innocents on death row,” Sister Prejean said. “We also know that it does not offer the healing balm to victims’ families that is promised.”
Noting the “power to take the life of our fellow citizens,” placed into the hands of government, she asked: “What confidence can we have that our governments can be trusted with such power? When a penalty is absolutely final, surely we must seek a flawless system, and what government, what group of people, can deliver that?”
Mr. Barr is Catholic and according to a questionnaire he completed for his confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year, he is a member of the Knights of Columbus and served on the board of the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., from 2014 to 2017. He also served on the “National Catholics for McCain” and “Catholics for Romney” political committees.
In 2014, following a botched state execution in Oklahoma, then-President Barack Obama directed the department to conduct a broad review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal injection drugs. It remains unclear today what came of that review and whether it will change the way the federal government carries out executions. That review has been completed and the executions can continue, the department said.
Executions on the federal level have been rare. The government has put to death only three defendants since restoring the federal death penalty in 1988, the most recent of which occurred in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of a young female soldier.
Annual executions in the United States since capital punishment’s restoration by the Supreme Court in 1976 peaked in 1999 with 98 executions. The use of capital punishment since then reached a low of just 20 across the country in 2016. In 2017, 23 people were executed, and 25 suffered the ultimate punishment in 2018. Nine people have been executed so far this year in the United States.
Capital punishment has been abolished or suspended throughout Western Europe and in 170 nations around the world. The United States is among a handful of nations—including China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Iraq—that continue the practice.
With additional reporting from The Associated Press and national correspondent Michael J. O’Loughlin. Updated on July 25, 2019 at 5:03 p.m. EDT with new attribution for U.S.C.C.B. statement and comments from Sister Helen Prejean.