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Lawmakers ask U.S. Justice Department to stop seeking death penalty

The seal of the United States Department of Justice is seen on the building exterior of the United States Attorney's Office of the Southern District of New York in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., August 17, 2020.
REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

Four members of the U.S. Congress working to abolish capital punishment wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland on Monday to ask that he order Department of Justice attorneys to stop seeking the death penalty.

Garland has already ordered a pause on scheduling execution dates for any of the 46 men on federal death row, saying in his July announcement a moratorium was necessary while his department reviewed whether the government’s protocols for capital punishment were fair and humane.

The four Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives say he and his department’s attorneys should go further and “halt all participation in the capital punishment system.”

“In conjunction with the moratorium on executions, Department of Justice prosecutors must stop seeking the death penalty,” Adriano Espaillat, Ayanna Pressley, Jerrold Nadler and Cori Bush wrote in their letter. “The inconsistent logic of halting executions while, at the same time, advocating for its use has grave consequences.”

Espaillat and Pressley have sponsored separate bills that would abolish the federal death penalty.

U.S. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, took office in January as the first president to promise to end capital punishment, but has not yet issued any orders related to the practice. Most other countries have outlawed capital punishment, as have a majority of U.S. states.

The Justice Department previously had a de facto moratorium on carrying out executions during the administration of Barack Obama, but capital punishment prosecutions continued and the federal death row grew larger.

Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, revived the use of capital punishment in an extraordinary spree of 13 executions over his final months in office – 12 men and one woman all convicted of murders and sentenced to death in federal courts. Prior to Trump, a Republican, the U.S. government had executed only three prisoners since 1963.

The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.

In recent months, the department has directed attorneys to withdraw capital punishment requests before federal courts in seven prosecutions, the New York Times reported.

The lawmakers ask in their letter why those cases were chosen, and whether any broader policy exists.

The department has not withdrawn efforts to seek capital punishment in other cases, including that of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was convicted of bombing the Boston Marathon in 2013, killing three people and wounding hundreds. Department attorneys are preparing to argue before the Supreme Court later this year that it should reinstate Tsarnaev’s death sentence, which was overturned by a lower court.

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