The United States will resume capital punishment for the first time in nearly two decades, after attorney general William Barr directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to schedule the executions of five death-row inmates.
Mr Barr announced in a statement that the death penalty would be reimplemented in order to bring justice to the families of victims, and that the five death-row inmates have all been convicted of murder. In some cases, the individuals have also been convicted of the torture or rape of children and the elderly.
“Congress has expressly authorised the death penalty through legislation adopted by the people’s representatives in both houses of Congress and signed by the president,” Mr Barr said in the statement.
The statement continues: “Under administrations of both parties, the Department of Justice has sought the death penalty against the worst criminals, including these five murderers, each of whom was convicted by a jury of his peers after a full and fair proceeding. 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.”
Among the five who have been identified is a white supremacist who killed a family of three; a man who dismembered a 16-year-old girl before killing an 80-year-old with a claw hammer; and a man who shot and killed five people.
The Justice Department says that all five people have exhausted their appellate and post-conviction remedies.
The vast majority of death penalties carried out in the United States are conducted at the state level, and not at the federal level, in spite of this recent decision.
Across the US, there are 29 states that have authorised the punishment, while a growing number of states have acted to abolish the measure.
Among the states that still have capital punishment are California, Texas, Arizona, Florida, and Oregon. New York, Alaska, Washington, Illinois, and others have acted to abolish the death penalty.
At the federal level, the death penalty was held unconstitutional in 1972, but reinstated in 1988 for a narrow set of offences. The Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994 opened up the number of offences to about 60.
Just three federal executions have been carried out in the modern era, however, with the most recent occurring in 2003 with the killing of Louis Jones Jr, following the Texas rape and murder of Army soldier Tracie Joy McBride. Timothy McVeigh, the man responsible for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings, was put to death by the US government in 2001.
While states have begun banning the practice – often citing the incredible costs of the procedures leading up to the event and the potential for error – American sentiment has remained largely the same on the issue.
According to historical polling data from Gallup, the majority of Americans have approved of the punishment since at least the mid-Sixties, the last time that the polling service showed more opposition than support.
The most recent polling on the issue found that 56 per cent of Americans support the death penalty for individuals convicted of murder, compared to 41 per cent who do not support the punishment.
In response to the Department of Justice’s announcement on Thursday, critics of the death penalty quickly cast the decision as “arbitrary” and “racially-based”, and one susceptible to “junk science”.
“The pervasive myth is that the federal death penalty is the ‘gold standard’ of capital punishment systems, applied only to the worst offenders for a narrow class of especially heinous crimes involving unique federal interests, with highly skilled and well-resourced lawyers on both sides,” wrote Ruth Friedman, the director of the Federal Capital Habeas Project, in a statement. “This is false.”
Ms Friedman continued: “In fact, the federal death penalty is arbitrary, racially-biased, and rife with poor lawyering and junk science. Problems unique to the federal death penalty include over-federalisation of traditionally state crimes and restricted judicial review. These and other concerns, including troubling questions about the new execution protocol, are why there must be additional court review before the federal government can proceed with any execution.”
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