Attorney General Merrick Garland on Thursday paused federal executions as the Department of Justice reviews its death penalty policies and procedures.
“The Department of Justice must ensure that everyone in the federal criminal justice system is not only afforded the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States, but is also treated fairly and humanely,” Garland said in a statement. “That obligation has special force in capital cases.”
Legal battles over the traditional three-drug protocol for carrying out execution by legal injection, and a shortage of sodium thiopental — one of the drugs — led to a two-decade lapse in federal executions. But then-Attorney General Bill Barr ordered federal prisons to resume executions in 2019, after making changes to the federal execution protocols.
Under Barr’s orders, federal prison officials were authorized to execute prisoners with a single drug, pentobarbital, a powerful sedative. Thirteen people on federal death row were executed using the single-drug method between July 2020 and January 2021. Garland on Thursday ordered an assessment of the risk of pain and suffering associated with the drug.
Garland is also calling for a review of adjustments made to the Justice Department regulations in November 2020 that expanded the methods of execution, as well as later changes that allowed for expedited execution of capital sentences.
The NAACP cheered the move on Thursday night, while noting that the death penalty “tragically and disproportionately impacts people of color.”
Ruth Friedman, director of the Federal Habeas Corpus Project, was less positive about the order and said it was “one step in the right direction, but not enough.”
“President Biden, with the support of the Department of Justice, can and should commute all federal death sentences to address these problems,” Friedman said in a statement. “Otherwise, this moratorium will just leave these intractable issues unremedied and pave the way for another unconscionable bloodbath like we saw last year.”