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U.S. Department of Justice Plans to Ramp up Federal Death Penalty

by Chad Marks

Attorney General William P. Barr has paved the way to restart the “machinery of death,” in the words of former Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, in the form of capital punishment on the federal level. In July 2019, Barr directed the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to adopt a proposed addendum to the federal execution protocol, which will allow death sentences to proceed.

While states have been executing prisoners on a regular basis, the federal death penalty has been on a hiatus since 2003, when Louis Jones, Jr. was put to death. Now, as part of Barr’s directive, the BOP has been ordered to schedule five executions.

“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,” Barr stated. “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.”

One of the prisoners scheduled for execution is Alfred Bourgeois. In August 2019, his attorneys renewed their fight against his death sentence. There is no objection to his conviction, but rather the fight centers around the fact that Bourgeois contends he is “intellectually disabled.” Under the Eighth Amendment standards established by the U.S. Supreme Court, he argues he can’t be executed due to his disability. If the courts fail to intercede he will be put to death in January 2020 in Terre Haute, Indiana, home of the BOP’s death chamber.

Challenges to the federal death penalty are not confined to the court system but are being raised in Congress, too. Attorney General Barr’s announcement and order regarding the death penalty led the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee to launch an investigation into the Department of Justice’s decision to resume executions.

House Democrats want answers as to why the administration decided to fire up the lethal injection machine; they also want to know how the Department of Justice plans to put prisoners to death, given recent controversy over capital punishment protocols.

In recent executions, pentobarbital has been used in states such as Texas, Georgia and Missouri. There have been complaints that the drug creates pain and a sensation of burning, and similar complaints regarding the execution drug midazolam. There will surely be legal battles contending that putting prisoners to death using those drugs violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Meanwhile, with the BOP preparing to resume executions, attorneys and advocates are gearing up to defend federal prisoners on death row. Bourgeois is just one of many condemned prisoners who are now literally fighting for their lives. The other four prisoners who face execution dates in December 2019 and early 2020 include Daniel Lewis Lee, Lezmond Mitchell, Wesley Ira Purkey and Dustin Lee Honken. According to a press release from the Attorney General’s office, they have all “exhausted their appellate and post-conviction remedies, and currently no legal impediments prevent their executions.”

Faith leaders have weighed in on this issue. In October 2019, the Catholic bishops of Indiana issued a statement calling the decision to resume federal executions “regrettable, unnecessary and morally unjustified.”

The bishops added that capital punishment “continues the cycle of violence; it neither helps the victims who survive, nor does it mitigate the loss of a loved one. And it precludes the possibility of reconciliation and rehabilitation.”

Among other faith-based groups, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Catholic Mobilizing Network and Sisters of Mercy have condemned Barr’s announcement.

As of July 2019, there were 62 federal prisoners on the BOP’s death row. 

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Sources: rollingstone.com, truthout.org, theroot.com, nytimes.com, cruxnow.com