OPINION: Half-stepping betrays campaign promise

Gov. Ralph Northam, left, stands near a gurney with Greensville Correctional Center warden Larry Edmonds, right, at the Greensville Correctional Center prior to signing a bill abolishing the state's death penalty in Jarratt, Va., Wednesday, March 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

In calling for an end to the federal death penalty, President Joe Biden spoke with bold clarity during last year’s presidential campaign. He also vowed to provide incentives for states to abolish their capital punishment laws. 

Since becoming President in January, however, Biden has retreated into ambiguity and silence, even as the U.S. Justice Department last month pushed to re-instate the death penalty for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. 

Biden’s backsliding has muddled federal policy on capital punishment, an integral part of criminal justice reform, and sent mixed signals to death penalty states, which hold most of the nation’s 2,500 death row prisoners.  

Last week, the U.S. Justice Department announced a pause on federal executions, but the pause does nothing to clarify Biden's views or move the government closer to erasing this moral stain.

In truth, it is practically meaningless, despite the fanfare that accompanies a U.S. Justice Department announcement. Even before the moratorium, no federal inmates were scheduled for execution. The DOJ order also does not commute any death sentences or bar federal prosecutors from seeking them. 

To be fair, Biden cannot single-handedly abolish the federal death penalty:  A hyper-partisan and divided Congress would first have to approve the legislation. The president can, however, commute the sentences of all 50 federal death row prisoners, converting their sentences to mandatory life.

Such decisive action would, in effect, end the federal death penalty for a generation, and send an unequivocal message to the 27 states with death penalty laws, including Pennsylvania, that this vestige of barbarism should end.   

While pausing executions, the Justice Department is conducting yet another death penalty review. This one examines the permissible methods of federal executions. It’s time to end government-sponsored killing, not debate whether lethal injection, electrocution, gas, or the firing squad is most cruel or least expedient.  

The federal moratorium also would permit the next president to resume executions, just as the Trump Administration did during the last six months of the former president's term. Those 13 federal executions were the first in 17 years.   

If Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, had acted boldly and commuted all federal death sentences, the executions under Trump could not have gone forward.   

Among other things, capital punishment poses unacceptable risks for executing the innocent. More than 180 people on death row have been wrongly convicted and exonerated since executions resumed in the 1970s, reports the non-profit Death Penalty Information Center. That's about one exoneration for every eight people executed.

"Any (transportation) system where the frequency of crashes were that high would be shut down immediately," DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham told The Herald's editorial page. 

 Evil triumphs when good people do nothing, 19-century philosopher John Stuart Mill said. 

Once an ardent supporter of the death penalty, Biden now understands the death penalty’s overwhelming flaws. As long as the president continues to do nothing, however, he will prolong an evil that has made the United States a moral outlier among nations. 


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