The federal government will resume executing death-row inmates after a 16-year hiatus, Attorney General William Barr said Thursday, countering a national trend that has seen a decline in the application of capital punishment.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons scheduled the executions of five condemned men who were convicted of murder, undoing what essentially had been a moratorium on the federal death penalty during a Justice Department review of the drugs used to execute prisoners.
The move is a reflection of President Trump’s own support for the death penalty. Trump has long pushed the Justice Department to pursue capital punishment more often, including in cases involving slain police officers and even against drug dealers.
The federal government hasn’t executed an inmate since 2003, though prosecutors under both Democratic and Republican administrations have continued to seek the death penalty, including— successfully — in the cases of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Dylann Roof, who killed nine black churchgoers in South Carolina in 2015.
“The Justice Department upholds the rule of law, and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” said Barr, who has long favored death penalty.
Civil-rights groups immediately criticized the reversal, noting that it comes as deep-seated problems with the death penalty remain unresolved, including racial disparities in how it is meted out.
In 2017, less than half of Americans favored execution for people convicted of murder, the lowest level of support since the 1970s, according to the Pew Research Center. That number jumped slightly last year, when 54% said they supported the punishment.
“We will challenge this move, which is completely out of step with the American people and justice at large. The DOJ is on the wrong side of history again,” said Cassandra Stubbs, director of the Capital Punishment Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.
At Barr’s direction, inmates will be executed using a single drug, pentobarbital as opposed to a more controversial three-drug cocktail, the department said. The department’s Office of Legal Counsel this year said in an opinion that the Food and Drug Administration has no authority over the drugs used in executions, potentially easing the availability of such drugs.
Executions will take place at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, CNN reported.
There are about 60 inmates on federal death row.
Those scheduled to be put to death are Daniel Lewis Lee, who robbed and killed a family of three; Lezmond Mitchell, who stabbed to death a 63-year-old woman and her 9-year-old granddaughter; Wesley Ira Purkey, who raped and killed a 16-year-old girl, then burned and dismembered her body; Alfred Bourgeois, who tortured, molested and killed his 2-year-old daughter; and Dustin Lee Honken, who fatally shot five people, including two who planned to testify against him and two children.
A Justice Department official said the attorney general himself selected cases he found particularly heinous and whose victims he viewed as especially vulnerable to be scheduled first. But the official didn’t explain why they were scheduled over just a six-week span in December and January.
The department said that there were “currently no legal impediments to prevent their executions,” but that could change; the capital defense bar typically shifts resources to inmates with pending executions, so more legal challenges can be expected.
Capital punishment at the federal level became mired in court challenges after the last federal execution in 2003, of Louis Jones Jr., who was convicted of raping and killing a female soldier.
Many of those challenges involved issues having to do with the three-drug cocktail then used to put inmates to death. Barr believed switching to the single drug cleared the way for the Bureau of Prisons to move forward with the executions.
The approach is a stark reversal from that of the Obama administration, which had deep concerns about the death penalty. After a botched execution by the state of Oklahoma in 2014, President Obama directed the Justice Department to review how the punishment is applied in the U.S. and take a closer look at the drugs involved.
The attorney general at the time, Eric Holder, was personally openly opposed to the death penalty, but said he would enforce the law.
The move effectively halted federal executions, but a proposal to put a formal moratorium on the death penalty never gained traction.
Almost as soon as he took office, Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, reignited the issue, telling the Bureau of Prisons to explore what it would take to resume executions. That review recently concluded, the department official said, spurring Barr to restart the process.
The most recent conviction among the five condemned men took place in 2004; defense lawyers likely will scrutinize the cases to see if subsequent case law could benefit their clients.
Barr’s decision comes as the total population of death rows across the country declined for the 17th straight year in 2017, according to federal data released this week. Those numbers showed that about 2,703 inmates nationwide are under a death sentence; more than 900 of those are located in Colorado, Oregon, Pennsylvania and, as of March, California, which have declared moratoriums on executions.
“We’re seeing bipartisan movements all around the country—led by racial justice groups, faith communities, conservatives, and others—fight to repeal the death penalty in their states,” Stubbs of the ACLU said.
Currently, 29 states -- including Colorado -- have the death penalty on the books, but only a handful, led by Texas, routinely carry it out.
In May, the New Hampshire Legislature overrode a gubernatorial veto to end executions, becoming the 21st state without capital punishment.
The resumption of federal executions is also likely to further distance the Trump administration from traditional U.S. allies and an international consensus forming against the death penalty.
In April, the European Union commended California Gov. Gavin Newsom for suspending capital punishment and called on U.S. states that permit the death penalty “to establish a moratorium on its application, joining the growing movement towards the abolition of the death penalty world-wide.”
Last October, marking the 16th World Day Against the Death Penalty, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres observed that while China, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia remain committed to capital punishment, most countries have abolished the practice.