Terre Haute in neighboring Vigo County, Indiana, has become the scene of an abuse of the federal death penalty, a punishment long reserved as a last resort in the US justice system.
Instead, the executions turned into a political spectacle.
A repeat of this sad chapter of history is unlikely, at least for a few years. Current United States Attorney General Merrick Garland has imposed a moratorium on federal executions while the Department of Justice revises its policies and procedures, including drugs used for lethal injections. This step is prudent after the events of 2020 and early 2021.
A resumption of federal executions – after a 17-year hiatus that spanned the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama through the first three years of Donald Trump’s term – was announced on July 25, 2019 by the Attorney General of Trump, William Barr. It was the morning after Special Advocate Robert Mueller finished his testimony to Congress on Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible Trump collusion. The ad appeared intended to distract the public’s attention, disguised as overdue justice for the families of the victims.
After legal challenges, a string of 13 executions over a six-month period began in July 2020, continued throughout President Trump’s re-election campaign against future winner Joe Biden, and then finally ended days before Trump’s term ends on January 20, 2021.
All of these executions took place at the Terre Haute federal correctional complex, which houses the country’s only federal death chamber. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic raged, Barr resisted stopping the deadly injections. This has turned into a super-spread of coronavirus situation, with correctional officers, prison office enforcement team roving staff, media witnesses, and inmates contracting COVID.
It was a weird episode. The number of executions was the highest under any president since the 19th century.
No executions have taken place since President Biden took office. The moratorium Garland announced on July 1 included no timeline for the review, only an explanation of its purpose, the Associated Press reported.
“The Department of Justice must ensure that everyone in the federal criminal justice system not only enjoys the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, but is also treated in a fair and humane manner,” he said. Garland said. “This obligation has particular force in cases of capital punishment. “
The review does not prevent federal prosecutors from seeking the death penalty, nor does it prevent future administrations from resuming federal executions. However, this gives reviewers time to assess the execution protocols put in place under Barr. Specifically, they will study the drug pentobarbital, which replaced the now difficult to obtain mixture of three drugs previously used for lethal injections. In addition, the reasons for the disproportionate number of black and minority inmates on death row will also be rightly examined.
American support for the death penalty has reached historic lows, although approval still hovers around 55%, according to the non-partisan Death Penalty Information Center. This growing unease, the recent unseemly taint of politics within the execution process, methods and racial inequalities validate the timing of the moratorium.
Tribune-Star, Terre Haute, Ind.