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Christine LenahanMarch 01, 2024
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the White House in Washington Feb. 8, 2024. (OSV News photo/Kevin Lamarque, Reuters).

When President Joe Biden first ran for office in 2020, his campaign website stated that should he be elected, he would create “legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example.” But as Mr. Biden campaigns for his second term, he has yet to fulfill that promise.

The Department of Justice announced on Jan. 14 that it will seek the death penalty for Payton Gendron. Mr. Grendon killed 10 Black people at a Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2022, when he was 18 years old, in what was determined to be a racially motivated act of domestic terrorism. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole on a 27-count indictment last November. 

Mr. Gendron’s new sentence marks the first capital case authorized by the Biden administration’s Department of Justice.

Under President Trump, the D.O.J. reactivated the federal execution chamber in Terre Haute, Ind. which had not been used in 16 years. Thirteen inmates were executed in the final six months of Mr. Trump’s presidency, creating the highest rate of federal executions in over a century. When U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland took office in 2021, he soon placed a moratorium on any federal executions while the D.O.J. reviewed the procedures and policies established by the Trump administration. 

But the moratorium “did not abolish the death penalty, or even limit the ability of federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty in new cases or defend it in court,” said Nathaniel Romano, S.J., an adjunct professor of law at Marquette University. “Rather, it simply meant that the federal government would not carry out executions pending these reviews.”

Mr. Gendron’s new sentence marks the first capital case authorized by the Biden administration’s Department of Justice.

Further, Mr. Garland has permitted federal prosecutors to move forward with capital prosecutions for two hate crimes, inherited cases authorized under the Trump administration. In the first case, Robert Bowers was unanimously sentenced to death by a jury in August 2023 for his attack on worshipers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018. The second case sought the death penalty for Sayfullo Saipov, an Islamic extremist who killed eight people and injured several others along a bike path in New York City. The jury was split, and he faces life in prison without parole. 

While the White House has not released a statement announcing the end of the moratorium, seeking the death penalty not only indicates the administration’s position on capital punishment but a larger stance on how it will respond to hate crimes. 

“There was a strong, substantial racial component to it,” Deborah Denno, a Fordham law professor who specializes in American criminology and the death penalty, said of the Gendron case. “I mean, really it was a hate crime. And I think that that combination of factors probably led to the recommendation for death.”

Under Mr. Garland, the Justice Department has reversed more than two dozen decisions that originally sought the death penalty. The Buffalo case marks the first time that Mr. Garland has authorized prosecutors to pursue the death penalty in a new case.

Alabama recently executed Kenneth Smith using an experimental method that uses nitrogen to cause hypoxia. The White House avoided a definitive opinion on the matter, saying little more than that the administration was “deeply troubled by it.”

Over the course of his political career, Mr. Biden’s stance on the death penalty has been inconsistent.

Over the course of his political career, Mr. Biden’s stance on the death penalty has been inconsistent. In 1991, for example, then-Senator Biden condemned the Justice Department under President George H. W. Bush for being soft on crime. “He’s only four times a year put someone in prison for life and only once gotten the death penalty,” Mr. Biden said on the Senate floor. He later helped usher in the 1994 crime bill under President Bill Clinton, legislation that is now considered a major component of the mass incarceration system in the United States.

Yet during a presidential campaign stop in New Hampshire in 2019, as he addressed a crowd of voters, he said, “By the way, congratulations to y’all ending the death penalty.” He has also expressed his support of the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act, which would undo much of the work of the 1994 crime bill.

Mr. Biden can still come through on his commitment to abolish the death penalty, and he could draw on scientific research. There remains no evidence that the death penalty is more effective at deterring violent crimes than, for instance, life imprisonment. 

Ultimately, the people who can abolish the death penalty are our policymakers. And it appears Mr. Biden is comfortable leaving it in place.

Further, more and more courts are questioning extreme punishment for young defendants in light of brain development research. Recently the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, for example, held that young people aged 18, 19 and 20 are more like “juveniles than adults because of their undeveloped brains, and therefore less criminally culpable than older adults.”

But another, perhaps larger, obstacle stands in the way. 

“I’m sure Biden is well aware that he could lose voters,” Ms. Denno said. According to a 2021 report by the Pew Research Center, ​​60 percent of Americans favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder. And while Pope Francis amended the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 2018 to specifically declare that the death penalty is “inadmissible” and a direct attack on human dignity, Pew reports that 58 percent of Catholics still support capital punishment. 

Ms. Denno acknowledged that Mr. Biden is “the only president in recent history who has actually made that kind of stance” on the death penalty while campaigning. Given Mr. Trump’s gains in pre-election polling, however, it is unlikely that Mr. Biden will take a definitive stance before the election. 

“Catholic voters have a responsibility, it would seem,” said Father Romano, “conforming themselves to the teaching of the church, to work within the political system to limit and eventually end the use of the death penalty.”

But ultimately, the people who can abolish the death penalty are our policymakers. And it appears Mr. Biden is comfortable leaving it in place.

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