As US Attorney General Eric Holder is preparing to step down from his position, he is making the rounds to sum up his legacy as the country's first black head of the US Justice Department, and one of its longest serving leaders.
Speaking to the National Press Club in Washington, DC on Tuesday, Holder touted progress in the sentencing of non-violent drug offenders, but also called on a halt to all executions, pending a Supreme Court decision on lethal injection drugs after a series of botched executions has made headlines over the past year.
"There's always the possibility that mistakes will be made... It's for that reason that I am opposed to the death penalty," he said at the Tuesday luncheon. "I think fundamental questions about the death penalty need to be asked. And among them, the Supreme Court's determination as to whether or not lethal injection is consistent with our Constitution is one that ought to occur. From my perspective, I think a moratorium until the Supreme Court made that determination would be appropriate."
The Supreme Court is currently reviewing a suit filed on behalf of a number of death row inmates against the state of Oklahoma, which they have accused of cruelty following the botched execution of Clayton Lockett — whose execution with an experimental drug combo lasted 43 minutes and turned into what witnesses described as a "bloody mess."
Jesselyn McCurdy, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, told VICE News that Holder's comments speak to current sentiments about the death penalty in America.
"We've know that that was Holder's personal position on the death penalty but what it really shows is what we've known for many years now, that the death penalty process is broken," she said. "We have concerns on a number of different levels, and the Supreme Court is taking up the issue of lethal injections, which we have concerns about after the execution that went horribly wrong in Oklahoma."
Holder also said Tuesday that he is "confident" that the department will deliver its verdict on the investigation it launched into the killing of unarmed teen Michael Brown at the hands of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in August.
Holder — the highest ranking administration official to travel to Ferguson following massive protests — spoke at the time about how the trip affected him personally. "I am the attorney general of the United States," hesaid. "But I am also a black man."
The DOJ has launched two investigations in Ferguson: one into Brown's killing, and one into the practices of the Ferguson police department and its alleged racial bias. Earlier this year, DOJ officials told the New York Times that it was unlikely that department lawyers will bring civil rights charges against Wilson, who a grand jury chose not to indict over the shooting.
The department has not confirmed an outcome on either of those investigations.
"My hope is, as I said, that we will do this before I leave office," Holder said Tuesday. "The reviews are underway. I was briefed on both of them, just last week, and I'm satisfied with the progress we have made, and also comfortable in saying that I am going to be able to make those calls before I leave office."
Holder also took the time to promote the results of his Smart on Crime initiative, which aims to reform the criminal justice system and reduce prison populations by focusing on the most serious offenses and most dangerous criminals.
"We made major changes to the department's charging policies related to nonviolent drug offenses; we put sensible limits on when it was appropriate to seek stiffer sentences based on a defendant's prior criminal record; and we took steps to improve reentry processes in order to reduce the chances that incarcerated individuals reoffend after they exit prison," Holder said in his remarks.
"Taken together, these reforms reflect the department's age-old commitment to a criminal justice system that is fair; that deters serious criminal conduct; that holds people accountable for their crimes; and that utilizes incarceration wisely — to punish, deter, and rehabilitate — not merely to confine and forget," he added.
Holder also praised a recent speech by FBI Director James Comey on race and policing — a speech he called "gutsy."
Holder has said he'll remain in office until his successor is confirmed. Obama's nominee to replace him, Loretta Lynch, has been an outspoken opponent of the death penalty. The Senate is supposed to cast the final vote on her nomination in March — though Holder invited them to accelerate the process.
"You would think in some ways Loretta's process would be sped up given their desire to see me out of office," he joked. "Be that as it may, logic has never necessarily been a guide up there."
McCurdy said today that she wishes Holder's successor will continue some of his initiatives — and ensure that they are properly executed.
"We hope the next attorney general will continue the smart on crime initiative first and foremost, but also continue to monitor internally the implementation of the smart on crime initiative to make sure that everyone internally is on board — that all 94 US district attorney offices are in fact implementing the new process in terms of rethinking how they charge people in drug cases, and making sure that resources are being used appropriately," she said.