WASHINGTON – The U.S. government will resume its use of capital punishment after a 16-year hiatus and has set execution dates for five convicted murderers, Attorney General Bill Barr announcedThursday.
Acting on President Donald Trump’s call for tougher penalties on violent crimes, Barr directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to adopt a new lethal injection protocol to clear the way to carry out death sentences.
“The Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” Barr said in a statement.
There were 25 executions in the U.S. last year, all carried out by state authorities on people convicted on state charges.
But debate about the methods of execution and controversy over the drugs used, as well as reticence from Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, means that no federal prisoner has been put to death since 2003.
Barr ordered the Bureau of Prisons to carry out executions using a single lethal injection of the barbiturate pentobarbital, replacing the previous, three-drug cocktails using thiopental.
“Since 2010, 14 states have used pentobarbital in over 200 executions, and federal courts, including the Supreme Court, have repeatedly upheld the use of pentobarbital in executions as consistent with the Eighth Amendment” of the Constitution, which bars cruel and unusual punishment, the Justice Department said.
There are 62 federal death row prisoners in the U.S., according to the Death Penalty Information Center, including Islamist Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was convicted of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing that left three people dead.
The list also includes white supremacist Dylann Roof, who murdered nine African-Americans in a Charleston, South Carolina, church in 2015.
On Barr’s order, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has scheduled executions for five people all convicted 15 years ago or more in brutal murders that involved children.
They include Daniel Lewis Lee, who robbed and killed a family of three, including an 8-year-old girl in 1996, and Alfred Bourgeois who tortured and sexually molested his 2-year-old daughter before killing her in 2002.
Executions in the United States are nearly all carried out by states. Twenty-five of the 50 U.S. states maintain an active death penalty, while 21 do not allow it and four have suspended its use.
Federal executions were on hold for nearly four decades until 2001, when Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was executed.
Two more people were put to death in federal prisons over the subsequent two years, and then the federal executions were halted again.
Obama, president from 2009 to 2017, was not fundamentally opposed to the death penalty but questioned its application.
In an interview with the Marshall Project in 2015, he called the practice “deeply troubling,” pointing to the disproportionately high number of African-Americans sentenced to death, and some recent “rather gruesome and clumsy” executions by states.
“We know that there are people on death row who have been freed because later on it’s been proven that they were innocent,” he said.
The Justice Department has pressed to toughen its stance on death penalty cases since Trump came to office, but Barr’s move also comes as the president seeks to bolster his law-and-order credentials ahead of next year’s election.
Trump has for decades supported capital punishment, and called for the execution of Sayfullo Saipov, the Islamic State-inspired Uzbek immigrant accused of a truck attack on pedestrians in New York in October 2017 that killed eight people.
He repeated that call after a white nationalist killed 11 in October 2018 in a Pittsburgh synagogue.
Both of those cases remain in the courts.
Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris, who is running for president, condemned Barr’s move.
“Let me be clear: capital punishment is immoral and deeply flawed. Too many innocent people have been put to death,” she tweeted.
“We need a national moratorium on the death penalty, not a resurrection.”