Department of Justice Halts Federal Executions

By Shani Saxon Jul 02, 2021

Attorney General Merrick Garland on Thursday (July 1) ordered a moratorium on scheduling federal executions so that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) can review capital punishment policy changes that took place during Trump’s presidency, The Washington Post reports. 

“The Department of Justice must ensure that everyone in the federal criminal justice system is not only afforded the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States, but is also treated fairly and humanely,” Garland said in a memo. “That obligation has special force in capital cases.”

The memo also noted that in the last two years, the DOJ has “made a series of changes to capital case policies and procedures and carried out the first federal executions in nearly two decades between July 2020 and January 2021.” 

The government had previously used a combination of three drugs to carry out executions. Under the direction of former AG William Barr, however, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) carried out 13 executions and began “using pentobarbital as part of a new single-drug protocol to administer the lethal injection,” according to NPR. Garland is now reviewing whether this single drug poses risks of pain and suffering. 

As The Post reports, the DOJ will also review last year’s decision to allow additional methods of execution besides lethal injection, including firing squads and electrocution. Garland will also look into the decision to allow executions to take place in state facilities, opposed to federal prisons. The DOJ memo makes it clear that no federal executions will take place during this review period. 

President Joe Biden pledged during his campaign to support anti-death penalty legislation, but some Democrats have criticized the President for taking too long to undo Trump’s DOJ decisions. Thursday’s announcement is likely a signal that Biden is paying attention to his critics. Ruth Friedman, director of the Federal Capital Habeas Project, told The Post that the pause on federal executions is a “step in the right direction, but it is not enough.” She is pushing the Biden administration abolish the death penalty entirely because the system is “marred by racial bias, arbitrariness, over-reaching, and grievous mistakes by defense lawyers and prosecutors that make it broken beyond repair.”

In a statement received by The Post, NAACP President Derrick Johnson called the death penalty “one example of America’s unjust justice system.” Johnson further stated, “We are encouraged by the Attorney General’s announcement today to halt federal executions.”