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Despite Biden Vow to End Federal Executions, DOJ Still Presses Hard

Joe Biden was the first U.S. president to campaign on a pledge to end the death penalty, but he and his administration, and his attorney general, Merrick Garland, announced a moratorium on federal executions a few months after the end of the Trump administration and its 13-execution run in its final months. But the Justice Department continues to take a hard line in favor of upholding existing death sentences in its appellate advocacy, the Associated Press reports. Death penalty opponents who expected Biden to act within weeks of taking office to fulfill his 2020 campaign promise to end capital punishment on the federal level and to work at ending it in states that still carry out executions express frustration more than two years into his term. “They’re fighting back as much as they ever have,” said Ruth Friedman, head of the defender unit that oversees federal death row cases. “If you say my client has an intellectual disability, the government ... says, ‘No, he does not.’ If you say ‘I’d like (new evidence),’ they say, ‘You aren’t entitled to it.’”


An Associated Press review of dozens of legal filings shows Biden’s Justice Department fights vigorously in courts to maintain the sentences of death row inmates. Lawyers for some of the over 40 death row inmates say they’ve seen no meaningful changes to the Justice Department’s approach under Biden since Trump. Administration efforts to uphold death sentences for white supremacist Dylann Roof, who killed nine Black church-goers, and Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev are better known. But there have been many lower-profile cases, too. The Justice Department confirmed that since Biden’s inauguration it hasn’t agreed with a single claim of racial bias or errors that could lead to the overturning of a federal death sentence. Current death row inmates were all tried under previous administrations. Prosecutors have less leeway after a jury’s verdict than before trial. Court challenges after trials are also often not about whether it was appropriate to pursue the death penalty, but whether there were legal or procedural problems at trial that make the sentence invalid. “It’s a very different analysis when a conviction has been entered, a jury has spoken,” said Nathan Williams, a former Justice Department lawyer who prosecuted Roof. “There has to be a respect for the appellate process and the legal approaches that can be taken.” A Justice Department spokesman said prosecutors “have an obligation to enforce the law, including by defending lawfully obtained jury verdicts on appeal.” The department is working to ensure “fair and even-handed administration of the law in capital-eligible cases,” he said.

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