The Department of Justice’s recently imposed moratorium on federal executions is a welcome first step, but the Biden administration needs to do much more to make good on the president’s campaign promise to end the death penalty. The administration should propose an action plan to achieve this ambitious yet realistic goal.
With the tide shifting toward abolition, the time is ripe to act. When Colorado abolished capital punishment March 23, 2020, it became the 22nd state to outlaw state killing. With Oregon, California, and Pennsylvania having declared moratoriums on capital punishment, our nation is now equally divided between states that execute and those that don’t.
Capital punishment’s decline is also reflected in changing public attitudes toward it. In 1984, a high of 80 percent of the public supported state killing. But a November 2019 Gallup poll tellingly revealed that 60 percent of respondents preferred life without parole sentences compared to the 36 percent who preferred capital punishment.
With 185 persons having been exonerated from death rows, concerns about executing the innocent motivates some people’s opposition. Others reject capital punishment as racist and arbitrary. Since the death penalty’s reinstatement in 1976, 81 percent of executions have occurred in 12 Southern states against poor people and the mentally ill and mentally disabled, and 75 percent of those sentenced to death had white victims, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Botched executions have further spurred protests it violates the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Consider what happened to Alabama inmate Doyle Lee Hamm. Intellectually challenged and a fetal alcohol syndrome survivor, he was sentenced to death for the 1987 murder of Cullman, Alabama, motel clerk Patrick Cunningham during a robbery.
Awaiting his execution, Hamm developed lymphatic cancer. He also had a history of intravenous drug use. Hamm’s history worked against Alabama’s Holman Prison execution team when they tried to kill Hamm February 22, 2018. For three hours, unable to locate a vein to administer their lethal drugs, they punctured Hamm a dozen times, cutting into his bladder and femoral artery before calling off their macabre assault. A month later, Hamm settled a lawsuit with the state confidentially, and they agreed not to try to execute him again.
The public’s growing aversion to the death penalty is also reflected in fewer death sentences nationally. Down from a peak of 315 sentences in 1996, a record low of 18 defendants were sentenced to death in 2020. Riding the abolition momentum, President Biden can hasten capital punishment’s ultimate demise.
First, he should commute the sentences of the 55 men on federal death row. He should also back the Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act of 2021, which eliminates the federal death penalty. If Biden doesn’t issue a mass commutation, the legislation would also require re-sentencing federal death row inmates. As he promised during his campaign, the president should spell out the incentives he will offer to states to end this inhumane practice and appoint a task force to achieve this objective by his term’s end.
Moving the nation toward abolition, Biden will reverse one of his predecessor’s more disgraceful, pernicious legacies: the killing spree that murdered 13 federal death row inmates in his final six months in office, a craven appeasement to Trump’s base to demonstrate how tough he was on crime—this, from a man some mystifyingly called “the most pro-life president in US history.” After a 17-year hiatus in federal executions, overseen by Catholic Attorney General William Barr, the Trump administration set a dubious record for executions, far outdistancing the Eisenhower administration’s mark of eight in eight years.
Working to end capital punishment, our Catholic president who believes everyone should be treated with dignity will remind us what Pope Francis has said: “The death penalty is an inhuman measure that humiliates personal dignity.” By promoting abolition, Biden will affirm state killings haven’t made us safer or better or brought victims’ families closure. Wanting to heal the nation’s soul, he will finally embrace abolition because he understands our country won’t be whole until we eradicate this barbaric practice.
Chris Byrd has been involved in the movement to abolish the death penalty for 37 years.