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Members of Congress Call on Biden to Commute Everyone on Federal Death Row

More than 35 members of Congress signed a letter asking Biden to commute the sentences of the remaining 50 people on federal death row.

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Reps. Cori Bush and Ayanna Pressley released a letter today asking President Joe Biden to commute the sentences of the remaining 50 people on federal death row, following his predecessor’s last-minute execution spree. At least 35 other members of Congress have also signed on to the letter.

“President Obama halted federal executions and commuted the sentences of two federal prisoners on death row,” Bush and Pressley wrote in the letter. “However, the Obama administration’s reticence to commute more death sentences has allowed the Trump administration to reverse course and pursue a horrifying killing spree over the final seven months of his presidency.”

Since July, the federal government has executed 13 people on death row, breaking a 17-year hiatus on federal executions and killing roughly one-fifth of all federal prisoners sentenced to death. Among those executed was Brandon Bernard, who at 18 participated in the carjacking and murder of two youth pastors, though he was not the one who shot the pastors. In the decades since his conviction, five of the jurors from his case said they no longer believe Bernard should be killed for his crimes—and so did one of the prosecutors who sought the death sentence in the first place. Also killed was Lisa Montgomery, who strangled a pregnant woman and whose traumatic childhood filled with rampant sexual abuse left her so seriously mentally ill, her lawyers contended it violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment to execute her. 

Biden has the power to commute the sentences of anyone on death row, meaning he could have them re-sentenced to life in prison instead of death if he so chooses. Biden has said he wants to work to pass legislation eliminating the federal death penalty, but has not said publicly whether he will commute any of the remaining 50 federal death sentences.

“Death penalty opponents are hoping Joe Biden learns from history,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “He was one of the authors of the federal death penalty act that expanded the federal death penalty from [applying to] a relatively small number of murders to one that encompasses thousands of murders each year.”

Now, Biden says the death penalty must be eliminated “because we can’t ensure we get these cases right every time.” Since 1973, at least 174 people who have been sentenced to death were later exonerated, meaning some people killed by the government were almost certainly innocent.

“There is a myth that death row is reserved for the worst of the worst crimes and the worst of the worst criminals. It’s false, it is not supported by the facts,” Dunham said, noting that whether or not a person gets sentenced to death has more to do with the political leanings of the prosecutors where the crime occurred and the quality of legal representation the defendants receive.

“Half of death row comes from fewer than two percent of all counties in the United States,” said Dunham. “Do proponents of the death penalty want a system that is based on the randomness of where you’re accused of committing a crime? Do they want a system where there is one exoneration for every nine people who are executed? Do they want a system that is based in large part on the race of the victim?”

Support for the death penalty has dropped in recent years and is currently at its lowest level in nearly 50 years. Twenty-two states and D.C. have abolished the death penalty. Governors in three states—California, Oregon, and Pennsylvania—have imposed a moratorium on the death penalty.

Rep. Pressley and Sen. Dick Durbin, incoming chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, have also introduced a bill to ban the federal death penalty and require the people on federal death row to be re-sentenced. The bill has nearly 60 sponsors.

The death penalty is used more frequently in cases where the victim is white than it is in cases where the victim is a person of color. And though the Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that it violates the Eighth Amendment to execute an intellectually disabled person, some research indicates people on death row have much higher rates of mental illness than the general public: 43 percent of people executed in the United States between 2000 and 2015 had been diagnosed as mentally ill at some point during their lifetimes, a review by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor Frank Baumgartner found.

“We hope to advocate for a justice system that seeks to rehabilitate and restore rather than penalize and execute,” Bush and Pressley wrote. “Like slavery and lynching did before it, the death penalty perpetuates cycles of trauma, violence and state-sanctioned murder in Black and brown communities. We urge the Biden-Harris administration to correct these injustices using every tool available, including the extraordinary power to grant clemency. With the stroke of the pen, you can end the death penalty and establish a clear commitment to justice and equity.”