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Policy Library

The Death Penalty in the News

December 05, 2019

On Monday, the Justice Department asked the U.S. Supreme Court to let it resume the federal executions scheduled for December 9 by “setting aside” a district court’s injunction blocking it from carrying out lethal injections as planned. The November ruling held that the Justice Department’s proposed lethal injection procedure “is not authorized” by federal law. This order temporarily called off four executions scheduled for December and January, which would have been the first carried out by the federal government since 2003. The Justice Department’s new request marked an escalation of the Trump administration’s push to restart federal executions.

The BBA has opposed the death penalty for more than 40 years. In 2013, the BBA Death Penalty Working Group published a report outlining the three bases for the BBA’s position:

  1. that the inevitability of error in criminal cases makes it overwhelmingly likely that reliance on the death penalty will lead to the execution of innocent defendants;
  2. that, in practice, the death penalty has a disproportionate impact on members of racial and ethnic minorities; and;
  3. that death penalty prosecutions are more expensive, more subject to prolonged delays, and unlikely to produce a different result than cases where the prosecution seeks life without parole.

We have been committed to policy advocacy against the death penalty, for instance, by filing numerous amicus briefs, including in Commonwealth v. O’Neal, Commonwealth v. Colon-Cruz, and U.S. v. Darryl Green. You can read more about the BBA’s work on the death penalty here.

This week, Jim Petro, a former Ohio attorney general, published an opinion piece in the New York Times where he outlined why he, as someone who has seen the death penalty up close, believes that the death penalty is a “failed policy”. Mr. Petro outlined the following:

Another unfortunate reality is that the federal death penalty is marred by the same problems of racial bias and geographical disparity found in the state death penalty systems. Just three Southern states — Texas, Virginia, and Missouri — are responsible for nearly half of the federal death row population. People of color, particularly African-American men, also account for more than half of all current federal death sentences. And the overlap between these two areas of disparity is significant: Every person on the federal death row from Virginia and all from the Eastern District of Missouri are people of color. And people of color have received 75 percent of federal death sentences imposed in Texas in the modern era.”

He also explained that many of those in favor of the death penalty are under the impression that it is reserved for crimes affecting our national interests, such as terrorism and espionage, when in fact, only one federal inmate is under a death sentence for a terrorism offense, and none for espionage or treason. He concludes, “Capital punishment is costly, offers no proven deterrent benefit and delays healing for victims’ family members, while also traumatizing correctional officers and risking the execution of innocent people.”

As our amicus brief in Colon-Cruz noted, lawyers involved in these cases are traumatized as well: “The psychological and emotional burdens on counsel, particularly on the defense, are immense.”

We join Mr. Petro in urging the Trump administration to suspend the attempt to resume with the executions scheduled for next week. The federal government has not executed anyone since 2003, and the Trump administration should keep it that way.   

-Lucia Caballero
Government Relations and Executive Assistant
Boston Bar Association