Biden should make good on pledge to end death penalty

Often, defendants are sentenced to die in cases in which the evidence is flimsy or officials engaged in misconduct. President Biden knows this.


The electric chair in the death chamber at Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Va., on March 24. Last month, Virginia abolished the death penalty.

Steve Helber/AP

White supremacist Dylann Roof, who fatally shot nine Black members of a South Carolina church during a Bible study six years ago, and Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev might appear to be poster children for the death penalty.

But not all death penalty cases are so clear-cut. Indeed, many are not. Often, defendants are convicted and sentenced to die in cases in which the evidence is flimsy or the cops or prosecutors have engaged in misconduct.

Joe Biden knows this. Which is why he pledged as a candidate to end the federal death penalty.

Now, as president, he should follow through.

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Biden has several options. He could commute the sentences of the 49 people on federal death row to life in prison, which would put a halt to executions until new cases make their way through the system. He could declare a moratorium on executions during his tenure in office, but that could end with the next president.

He could order the U.S. Justice Department not to seek the death penalty in new cases, an option the Associated Press reports he has discussed privately. He could instruct the department to withdraw its intention to seek executions in cases already underway and to review death penalty cases to see if they are flawed.

Or Biden could push legislation through Congress to abolish the death penalty, as many states have done. This would be the best option, if Congress will have it, but what matters most is that Biden send a message: The death penalty is broken and can’t be fixed.

The Trump administration’s rush to execute 13 people in its last six months obscures the fact that no state has executed a prisoner since July, the longest hiatus since the 1980s. Last month, Virginia became the 23rd state, along with the District of Columbia, to abolish capital punishment.

As cases such as that of George Floyd come to the public’s attention, Americans increasingly are realizing that the criminal justice system is not always fair and should not be entrusted with the power to kill. Since 1973, 185 wrongfully convicted death row prisoners have been exonerated, including 21 in Illinois, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

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As Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told us on Wednesday, the states that most strongly support the death penalty generally are those whose attorneys general filed a brief in support of overturning the 2020 presidential election and whose elected leaders are more likely to engage in voter suppression. States with fair elections tend to elect lawmakers, many from groups that have been historically victimized, who understand the dangers of capital punishment.

“The biggest long-term foe of the death penalty is democracy,” Dunham said.

Candidate Biden made a lot of promises. This is one he must now keep.

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