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What Explains Different DOJ Death Penalty Decisions?

In two different mass shootings, each killing more than 10 people based on racist reasons, the Department of Justice authorized the death penalty for only one of the cases: the killings at a Pittsburgh synagogue. How the Biden administration makes these decisions is seemingly inconsistent, but there are factors that go into how that decision is made, the Associated Press reports. President Biden campaigned in part on abolishing the U.S. death penalty. He hasn’t taken steps to fulfill that, but the DOJ has not authorized death penalties for any of close to 400 new indictments that carried potential capital sentences.

A federal jury on Thursday found Robert Bowers, the Pittsburgh mass shooter, eligible for the death penalty, setting the stage for further evidence and testimony on whether he deserves it. A federal judge last Friday gave Patrick Crusius life in prison, the maximum available sentence, for his racially motivated attack in 2019 on an El Paso, Texas, Walmart. Crusius had pleaded guilty after prosecutors took a death sentence off the table. An Associated Press review of court filings and Biden-era staff guides offers clues about what influences the Justice Department’s decisions. They suggest the department is most likely to OK death sentences for racist and terrorist attacks and when victims’ families support it. Changes to department guidance also specify mental illness can count against approving death sentences, which is a departure from Trump-era guidance. At least two inmates executed under Trump had severe mental illnesses. The guidance was central to the Crusius decision, with department attorneys accepting he had schizoaffective disorder. They rejected claims Bowers’ psychotic episodes pointed to schizophrenia. Critics say that the lack of changes in the DOJ’s Capital Case Section, which assists U.S. attorney’s offices with capital cases, brings unwelcome continuity with the former Trump administration’s handling of capital cases. Under President Trump, there were 13 federal executions in six months. The department has fought as hard under Biden as under Trump to defeat all bids by some 40 inmates on federal death row to have their death sentences tossed on racial bias and other grounds. Other factors in decisions about the death penalty in the Biden administration could include mental health and the type of attack, along with if the victims’ families support the death penalty.


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