President-elect Joe Biden opposes the death penalty and has said he will work to end its use, but as President Trump’s administration accelerates the pace of federal executions in the closing days of his presidency, activists and progressive lawmakers are feeling more urgency to push Biden to act immediately upon taking office.
After nearly two decades without a federal execution, the Trump administration resumed the practice earlier this year. The executions, including ones scheduled to take place just days before Biden’s inauguration, have prompted criticism of the Trump administration’s actions.
“There have never been so many executions scheduled for so late in a presidency during any transition period in the entire history of the United States,” said Robert Dunham, the head of the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center.
Dunham said that the U.S. government has not had multiple federal executions during a presidential transition since the late 1800s, and that the Trump administration’s actions are without historical precedent.
Trump critics have denounced the decision to resume executions during an election year as politically motivated, and are focused on what Biden can do when he takes office.
“He says he opposes the death penalty, so we want him to use his clemency power and end this cruelty once and for all,” said Rep.-elect Cori Bush of Missouri, a Democrat who will take office next week.
Bush has publicly called on Biden to grant clemency to every person on federal death row. In an interview, she said that a moratorium on federal executions would not go far enough because it would simply stave off the issue until the next administration, leaving lives hanging in the balance.
Former President Barack Obama did not use his clemency powers widely to commute federal death sentences to life terms. If he had, death penalty opponents say, the people currently facing execution would no longer be on death row.
“After four years or eight years or however long President Joe Biden is in his seat, we don’t want the next person to come in and to be able to do what the Trump administration is currently doing,” Bush said.
Bush is one of a group of lawmakers, led by Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who wrote to Biden calling on him act.
In a letter dated Dec. 15, the lawmakers describe capital punishment as “unjust, racist, and defective,” and write that the Trump administration “weaponized capital punishment with callous disregard for human life.”
“Ending the barbaric and inhumane practice of government-sanctioned murder is a commonsense step that you can and must take to save lives,” the lawmakers write. “We respectfully urge you to sign an executive order on Day 1 to place an immediate moratorium on the country’s cruel use of the death penalty and signal your commitment to dismantle its use altogether.”
The lawmakers are calling on Biden to “end the federal death penalty” on his first day in office. That’s something that he wouldn’t be able to do alone.
“A U.S. president does not have the power to abolish the federal death penalty,” Dunham said. “The only way that the federal death penalty can be abolished is an act of Congress signed by a president, or from a court decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s clear from the current composition of the Supreme Court that that’s not going to happen, so the only way that the Biden administration would be able to end the federal death penalty would be to have some sort of bipartisan support in Congress.”
The Biden transition team didn’t respond directly to questions about the lawmakers’ letter, or whether he would consider commuting the sentences of every person on federal death row. But during the campaign, candidate Biden pledged to eliminate the death penalty, citing some 160 people who were sentenced to capital punishment since the 1970s and were later exonerated. He’s also said he would incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example.
Pressley has sponsored legislation to abolish the death penalty, which Bush says she will support as soon as she takes office. Bush says she sympathizes with family members seeking justice, but that she doesn’t “believe that the way to solve it is to hurt another body.”
While the death penalty was not a significant issue raised during the 2020 presidential race, there are sharp differences in the views of Biden and Trump. Biden opposes the death penalty, while Trump is a supporter of capital punishment who painted himself as a law-and-order president during the campaign.
The renewed debate over the death penalty is now playing out as support for the practice is at its lowest point over the past five decades, according to Gallup polling. While there have been declines in support for the death penalty among Democrats and independents, according to Gallup’s historical data, support among Republicans has remained relatively steady.
It may be difficult to find bipartisan support in Congress for a repeal of the practice. Unless Democrats win two runoff elections in Georgia, Republicans will hold control of the Senate. And Democrats will have a slim majority in the House.
Regardless, Bush says she’s hopeful that there is enough support on Capitol Hill to pass the legislation, but that Biden will need to use the bully pulpit to convince the public that the issue is urgent. She’s ready to help.
“My hand is raised. The hands of my team are raised. We will help do the work,” she said. “If he will call on me. If he will call on Rep. Ayanna Pressley or so many others. We will help do the work. Like, put us in, coach.”