Attorney General Merrick Garland ordered a moratorium on federal executions on Thursday ― citing “serious concerns” about the continued use of the death penalty in the U.S., including the “arbitrariness in its application, disparate impact on people of color, and the troubling number of exonerations in capital and other serious cases.”
“Those weighty concerns deserve careful study and evaluation by lawmakers,” Garland said in a memorandum to senior officials, adding that no further federal executions would be scheduled while the Justice Department reviews its “policies and procedures” related to capital cases.
“The Department of Justice must ensure that everyone in the federal criminal justice system is not only afforded the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States, but is also treated fairly and humanely,” Garland wrote. “That obligation has special force in capital cases.”
Among the Justice Department policies under review is the 2019 decision ― enacted by former President Donald Trump’s Attorney General William Barr ― to allow prisons to use pentobarbital sodium, a powerful sedative, to execute people on federal death row.
Barr’s move allowed the federal government to resume capital punishment after an almost two-decade pause. More than a dozen people on federal death row have since been executed using pentobarbital sodium ― despite some medical experts’ concerns that the use of the drug “may risk inflicting painful pulmonary edema,” as Garland noted in his memo this week.
Garland said he has directed the Bureau of Prisons to stop using pentobarbital sodium until the review of the policy is complete.
As NBC News noted, Garland’s memo did not address whether the federal government intends to continue seeking the death penalty in criminal cases.
President Joe Biden has publicly opposed the death penalty, making him the first U.S. president to openly take that position.
His Justice Department, however, is currently fighting in court to have death penalty sentences reinstated for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Acting Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar told the Supreme Court last month that an appeals court should not have tossed out the capital sentences a federal jury recommended for Tsarnaev’s crimes.
“That determination by 12 conscientious jurors deserves respect and reinstatement by this court,” Prelogar said in a brief.