Ayanna Pressley leads letter calling on Joe Biden to use executive action to abolish the federal death penalty

For the first time ever this year, the federal government executed more people than all the states combined. Pressley wants Biden to halt them on Day 1.

11VirusPrison
Boston, MA  11/10/20  Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (cq) puts her mask back on after speaking.  Several officials hold a press conference in front of the Massachusetts State House to call for the release of prisoners endangered by the continuing coronavirus pandemic.  (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
Rep. Ayanna Pressley puts on a mask after speaking at a press conference last month in front of the Massachusetts State House in Boston. –Pat Greenhouse / The Boston Globe

President-elect Joe Biden campaigned on stopping the use of the federal death penalty once he takes office.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley is calling on him to do it on Day 1.

In a letter Tuesday, the Massachusetts congresswoman led more than 40 fellow House Democrats (along with several who will be sworn in next month) calling on Biden to use executive authority on the day of his presidential inauguration to halt all federal executions, prohibit federal prosecutors from seeking the death penalty, and dismantle the federal government’s death row.

“The United States stands alone among its peers in executing its own citizens,” the letter said, adding that the death penalty — which has been abolished for all crimes in Canada, Mexico, and nearly every European country —  “denies the dignity and humanity of all people” but “is disproportionately applied to people who are Black, Latinx, and poor.”

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The group of lawmakers cited statistics showing that while Black people make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, they represent 42 percent of people on death row and 35 percent of those executed. Researchers have also estimated that at least 4 percent of defendants sentenced to death in the United States — in other words, one of every 25 — are innocent. Criminologists have also never been able to prove that the death penalty actually deters crime.

“Ending the barbaric and inhumane practice of government-sanctioned murder is a commonsense step that you can and must take to save lives,” said Pressley’s letter Tuesday to Biden.

Massachusetts Reps. Jim McGovern, Lori Trahan, Katherine Clark, and Joe Kennedy III also signed onto the letter.

While polls have historically found that most Americans broadly support the idea of the death penalty, public opinion has recently shifted to prefer life imprisonment as the better punishment for convicted murderers, according to Gallup.

Overall, executions in the United States — which, at least historically, have mostly been carried by states — hit their lowest level since 1991 this year. However, this year also marked the first time ever that the federal government, led by Republican President Donald Trump, executed more people than all the states in the country combined; according to a report released Wednesday by Death Penalty Information Center, 10 people were executed this year by the federal government, compared to just seven by states.

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Since the election, the Trump administration has also scheduled five executions to be conducted before Biden takes office. Three have already been carried out.  According to the DPIC, they’re the first lame-duck executions since 1889.

On his campaign website, Biden called for legislation to “eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example.”

Pressley also introduced a bill last year to permanently abolish the federal death penalty. The legislation has 60 co-sponsors, but otherwise gained no apparent traction.

In the letter to Biden, the 45 signatories pledged to “work diligently to advance” Pressley’s bill, but said Biden alone could “clearly demonstrate your commitment to eliminating the death penalty as laid out in your criminal justice reform plan” through executive action on Jan. 20.

“While eliminating the death penalty will not fix our broken criminal legal system, it is a significant step toward progress,” they wrote. “We urge you to prioritize justice on Day 1 of your administration and end the use of the death penalty.”

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