In the dead of night on Thursday, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a temporary moratorium on federal executions while he conducts a “review of the Justice Department’s policies and procedures” on capital punishment. In so doing, he reverses predecessor William Barr, who oversaw the first federal executions since 2003, and officially enacts a plan first floated by Eric Holder, essentially formalizing the informal moratorium that Barack Obama oversaw for two terms.
The stated reason for the hold is a review of Barr’s policy changes, particularly the risk of pain and suffering created by the DOJ’s switch to using the barbiturate pentobarbital for its lethal injections. The drug has been used in over 100 executions, and capital offenders routinely request it as a less painful alternative to other execution methods; the Supreme Court and dozens of inferior courts have explicitly said its use does not contravene the Eighth Amendment.
But the aim of the moratorium is not actually to review whether or not pentobarbital is a permissible method of execution. Such a review, if it happens, will almost certainly drag on as long as a Democrat holds the White House; it is a pretext. Rather, Garland’s goal is a backdoor death-penalty abolition, carried out under false pretenses because he knows how unpopular a formal end to federal capital punishment would be.
Joe Biden is the first president in the modern era to win election on a platform that included ending the federal death penalty. Yet since taking office, he has dragged his feet on the promise, despite pressure from activists in his party.
The obvious reason: capital punishment is broadly supported by Americans, the significant majority of whom believe there are certain heinous offenders who deserve to die. The most-recent polling on the topic, from Pew, found that fully 60 percent of Americans support the death penalty “for persons convicted of murder” (a question yielding a result that understates true support). Supporters include nearly half of Democrats, and a majority of all races except blacks, who are evenly split. Similar numbers of Americans explicitly oppose abolishing the death penalty, while just 35 percent support doing so.
Rather than try to win a public debate it knows it cannot, the administration is taking the same disingenuous route as other modern death-penalty abolitionists—claiming procedural problems where none exist as an excuse to implement an indefinite moratorium. It’s the same strategy that California governor Gavin Newsom adopted in 2019, just a few years after an election in which Golden State voters soundly rejected yet another attempt to abolish capital punishment at the ballot box.
The result is that convicted murderers will continue to languish on death row, where the average time between sentencing and execution has now risen to 22 years thanks to abolitionist obstructionism. Those granted reprieve by Biden’s moratorium include such people as white supremacist and domestic terrorist Dylann Roof, who shot and murdered nine black men and women at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina; and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the still-living Boston Marathon bomber who is responsible for three deaths and over 260 injuries.
Most Americans believe that deranged, unrepentant murderers like these deserve to pay the ultimate price. The Biden administration apparently disagrees, but obscures its judgment behind proceduralist misdirection.