U.S. Attorney General William Barr has directed the Federal Bureau for Prisons (BOP) to adopt protocols that will immediately reinstate the ability of the federal government to carry out the death penalty. Consequently, Barr has also directed the BOP to schedule the execution of five death-row inmates who he considered to be the “worst criminals”, to begin at the end of 2019.
The move to re-establish the practice of capital punishment reverses a sixteen-year hiatus of no federal executions, with only three done since 1988. However, Barr relentlessly defends the decision, saying: “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… we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”
The death penalty is still legal in 29 U.S. states, although the rates of execution have been decreasing steadily due to difficulties in sourcing lethal injection drugs, in addition to a decline in the number of Americans who support capital punishment. Democratic Senator Kamala Harris said in a statement on Twitter: “Capital punishment is immoral and deeply flawed. Too many innocent people have been put to death. We need a national moratorium on the death penalty, not a resurrection.”
Indeed, the rates of criminal exoneration (a conviction being reversed) indicate deep problems with capital punishment. In 2018, 68 homicide convictions were exonerated in the U.S., including those involving two death-row inmates, according to data from the National Registry of Exonerations. It is also possible that many more death-row inmates are innocent. This is according to a 2014 study that analyzed exoneration rates of death-row inmates. The study found the lifelong exoneration rate of death-row inmates to be 4.1% – creating a staggering margin of error that the federal government should regard as unacceptable.
The use of the death penalty globally has been condemned by large organizations such as Amnesty International, who consider it to be a “cruel and inhumane punishment.” At a time where the global trend of the death penalty is on an overall decline, the U.S. taking steps to reinstate the practice at the federal level shows a clear disregard of public opinion. All available indicators show that Americans are less in favour of the practice than before, meaning that severe discourse should take place before the federal government normalizes capital punishment.