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The Trump administration plans to resume federal executions, reversing a 16-year de facto moratorium on the death penalty within the Department of Justice.
Attorney General William Barr instructed the Federal Bureau of Prisons on Thursday to schedule executions of five death-row inmates, who he said were convicted of “murdering, and in some cases torturing and raping, the most vulnerable in our society — children and the elderly." The federal government has carried out three executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1988: two in 2001 and one in 2003.
But it’s not clear whether the federal government has successfully obtained the drugs required to perform lethal injections in the midst of a nationwide shortage.
“Congress has expressly authorized the death penalty through legislation adopted by the people’s representatives in both houses of Congress and signed by the president,” Barr said in a statement. “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.”
Thursday’s announcement bucks a national trend toward phasing out the death penalty entirely. Faced with a shortage of lethal injection drugs, states have tried to experiment with untested cocktails of chemicals — and even kept some of the details secret. But trying to circumvent the shortage has led to botched executions in some instances and lawsuits questioning the humanity of new protocols.
As a result, the number of annual executions has declined in recent years — and public opinion has increasingly swung in favor of doing away with capital punishment entirely.
Some states have even adjusted their protocols to allow death row inmates to choose alternate methods of execution. Last December, an inmate in Tennessee died by electric chair at his request.
Sixty-two inmates currently wait on federal death row. Among them is Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who killed nine black parishioners when he opened fire on a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.
Only 25 states still have the death penalty on the books, but just eight states carried out executions in 2018. So far this year, governors in four states — California, Colorado, Oregon and Pennsylvania — have placed moratoriums on their state’s death penalty. New Hampshire also abolished the death penalty entirely in 2019, just months after Washington, which scrapped capital punishment last October.
Cover image: A table with restraints is shown inside the death chamber at the new lethal injection facility at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif., Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2010. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)