Federal Government To Resume Capital Punishment After 16-Year Hiatus

Today, the Justice Department announced that it will carry out the death penalty for the first time in nearly two decades.

Attorney General William Barr directed the Bureau of Prisons to schedule the execution of five inmates after adopting an updated execution protocol.

After 16 years without an execution, Barr has directed the head of the Bureau of Prisons to execute “five death-row inmates convicted of murdering, and in some cases torturing and raping, the most vulnerable in our society — children and the elderly” in December and January, according to a statement from the Department of Justice.

In his statement, Barr said the government was moving to seek justice against the “worst criminals” and bring relief to victims and family members. At the same time, however, the government’s move is likely to reignite legal challenges to the specific protocol and reinvigorate a debate concerning the constitutionality of lethal injection.

Background
The move represents a dramatic reversal after more than a decade-long hiatus in the federal use of capital punishment, as President Donald Trump has taken on the issue and called to “bring back the death penalty.” The death penalty is legal in 29 states and the federal government, though there have been no federal executions in nearly two decades and the number of people facing state executions has been on the decline.
The debate over capital punishment has been longstanding. Advocates argue that it’s a deterrent against serious crime and that justice is served for the victims or victim’s families. Opponents point to the racial disparities of death row inmates, the financial costs, and wrongful convictions.
At Barr’s direction, the Bureau of Prisons has adopted the Federal Execution Protocol Addendum which “replaces the three-drug procedure previously used in federal executions with a single drug—pentobarbital,” the Justice Department announced.
Legal Challenges Ahead

Barr’s announcement directs the federal government to use a new protocol — similar to what several states use — that has been under review for a number of years.

The executions are slated for the end of the year. But will likely face legal challenges and delays. Legal experts question whether any execution will take place as soon as December.

“Saying that you are going to adopt a protocol is not the same thing as having a protocol properly adopted through the required administrative procedures,” said Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a group that has been critical of how the penalty is administered. “You can’t just say it and have it happen. There is a legal process for a protocol to go into effect and there is a legal process for challenging the protocol.”

Opposition will continue once the protocol is formally proposed.

Already in the District of Columbia there has been an ongoing lawsuit involving the federal lethal injection process. There will be a range of questions about how the federal government is obtaining the drug it intends to use.

We will closely monitor whether federal prosecutors in Southwest Missouri decide to seek the death penalty.