During Donald Trump’s final week in office, the federal government executed three prisoners on death row. By the time President Joe Biden was inaugurated, the Trump administration had overseen a record 13 executions in seven months, a killing spree unparalleled in modern U.S. history.
Now, a coalition of prosecutors and attorneys general is calling on Biden to immediately end the federal death penalty, calling it “an assault on human dignity and an affront to American values.”
In a letter sent on Monday, nearly 100 criminal justice leaders implored Biden to commute the sentences of everyone on federal death row and to instruct federal prosecutors not to seek the death penalty in future cases.
“The death penalty is an archaic and failed institution that is rooted in racism and too often punishes the innocent,” said Miriam Krinsky, executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution and a former federal prosecutor who organized the letter. “The previous administration’s cruel and ruthless killing spree undermined the already-fragile trust in the justice system and revealed that a simple pause on executions is not nearly enough.”
The Trump administration restarted federal executions last summer — in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic — after a 17-year hiatus in the practice.
Among those executed by the federal government was Lisa Montgomery, a mentally ill woman who was sexually tortured as a child; Dustin Higgs, who maintained his innocence up until his death; and Corey Johnson, who had an intellectual disability. Both Higgs and Johnson were recovering from COVID-19 at the time of their deaths.
The letter, which was signed by a number of U.S. attorneys and former Department of Justice officials, warns that the death penalty is tainted by racial bias and exists in tension with the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment and the guarantees of due process and equal protection under the law.
“We also now know that we have not executed the worst of the worst, but often instead put to death the unluckiest of the unlucky — the impoverished, the poorly represented, and the most broken,” the letter reads.
“Time and again, we have executed individuals with long histories of debilitating mental illness, childhoods marred by unspeakable physical and mental abuse, and intellectual disabilities that have prevented them from leading independent adult lives. We have executed individuals with trial lawyers so derelict in their duties and obligations that they never bothered to uncover long histories of illness and trauma. We have also likely executed the innocent.”
There are 49 people left on federal death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
During his presidential campaign, Biden pledged to eliminate the federal death penalty, noting that “we cannot ensure we get death penalty cases right every time.” But he has not elaborated on his plans for the people on death row.
Federal executions take place at a prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, which houses the only federal death chamber in the U.S. The letter also asks Biden to order that the death chamber be taken apart so it is never used again.
“We ask you to not only support federal legislative efforts to end capital punishment, but to take all steps in your power to disassemble the machinery of death and ensure future presidents cannot execute the dozens of people on federal death row at will,” the letter says. “[K]eeping intact the death chamber at Terre Haute leaves the stage still set for unspeakable cruelty that says more about us as a society than it does about those we execute.”
More than 35 members of Congress have also signed a letter asking Biden to commute the sentences of the remaining people on death row.
Read criminal justice leaders’ full letter below.