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Garland Considers Seeking Death Penalty in Buffalo Slaughter

The Biden administration’s pledge to pursue racial equity in criminal justice is facing a crucial test: whether federal prosecutors will seek the death penalty for the self-avowed white supremacist charged with slaughtering 10 Black people in a Buffalo grocery store in May. Some survivors and family members of those killed told Attorney General Merrick Garland in June that they support bringing a capital case against the 18-year-old suspect, Payton Gendron, the Washington Post reports. Their stance conflicts with the long-standing position of civil rights advocates, who have opposed the death penalty out of concerns it is unjust and disproportionately used against racial minorities. Garland, under pressure from civil rights groups, issued a moratorium last summer on federal executions, after President Trump carried out 13 in the final six months of his presidency. As heinous as the Buffalo killings were, Black civil rights leaders say, seeking to execute the gunman would represent a setback in their efforts to abolish capital punishment.


“The reality for us is that the system is too often infused with racial bias. That doesn’t change because someone who is White, and who perpetrated violence against Black people, is put to death,” said Maya Wiley, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. While Garland’s moratorium does not ban prosecutors from seeking the death penalty, the Justice Department has not filed a notice to seek capital punishment under his leadership. Experts said Garland’s decision in Buffalo could send a strong signal to state legislatures. Twenty-three states have abolished the death penalty, while three — Oregon, Pennsylvania and California — have a moratorium against it, says the Death Penalty Information Center. Center director Robert Dunham said data suggest that the death penalty is not a deterrent to homicides or mass shootings, given higher murder rates in many states that allow executions. “The White House has expressed a preference to do away with the federal death penalty, but it hasn’t set a policy,” Dunham said. “In the absence of a policy, [Garland] has to decide, and there are countervailing interests.”

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