Federal Government Resumes Capital Punishment Almost 20 Year Later

The Department of Justice recently issued a press release announcing that the federal government would be resuming capital punishment after a lapse of almost two decades. Attorney General William Barr formally directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to adopt a proposed addendum to the Federal Execution Protocol, which will allow the BOP to carry out executions. Barr also specifically directed the Acting Director of the BOP to schedule the executions of five death-row inmates who have been convicted of murdering, torturing, or raping children and elderly individuals. The executions are scheduled to take place at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana beginning in December 2019 and running through January 2020.

The proposed addendum would replace the previously used three-drug execution procedure with a single drug, pentobarbital. The federal government has made this change because 14 states have successfully used this drug in executions since 2010. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld use of the drug as consistent with the Eighth Amendment, which outlaws cruel and unusual punishment. One of the major problems with the previous three-drug cocktail was a severe shortage of one of the drugs necessary for the cocktail to be effective.

Federal Government Resumes Capital Punishment Almost 20 Year Later

Federal executions have been rare. The federal government carried out only three executions between 1998 and 2018, including the Oklahoma City federal building bomber Timothy McVeigh. Former President Obama had initiated a review of federal execution procedures in 2014 after a botched execution in Oklahoma. The Department of Justice, however, states that it has completed its review.

The decision of the federal government to proceed with executions is in opposition to the increasing trend of states backing off the death penalty. At five states have abolished the death penalty in recent years, and courts in two other states have ruled that state death penalty laws are unconstitutional. Some states, however, still aggressively pursue the death penalty, including the State of Texas.

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