Critics say that the Justice Department’s different approaches in a pair of mass-killing cases show that the Biden administration has failed to press for the elimination of capital punishment and is not applying clear standards in judging who, if anyone, should face the death penalty. On Monday, federal prosecutors begin the death penalty phase in the trial of Sayfullo Saipov, who was convicted last month on murder and terrorism charges for killing eight pedestrians with a truck on a New York City bike path in 2017. That comes days after DOJ announced an agreement allowing Patrick Crusius, who pleaded guilty to killing 23 people and injuring 22 while targeting Mexicans in a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso in 2019, to avoid the death penalty. Saipov’s lawyers sought a similar plea agreement in 2018 to spare his life, the Washington Post reports.
Analysts said the Justice Department’s decisions in those cases and others make it difficult to detect a consistent policy more than two years into the Biden presidency. As a candidate, Biden made promises to seek a capital punishment ban over concerns about how federal executions are carried out and how prosecutors have disproportionately targeted racial minorities and the poor. Attorney General Merrick Garland has deauthorized 25 death penalty cases started under previous administrations, and the Justice Department has not authorized any new capital cases since he took over in 2021. DOJ has continued to back capital convictions in appeals from Dylann Roof, a White man who fatally shot nine Black parishioners in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who orchestrated a bombing that killed three at the Boston Marathon in 2013. Federal courts upheld both of their death penalty sentences. Seven federal capital cases, including Saipov’s, remain active. Among them is the government’s prosecution of Robert Bowers, set to stand trial in April on charges from the mass killing of 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018.