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President Biden campaigned as an opponent of capitol punishment, and he still opposes the death penalty, the White House says. But you’d be forgiven for not knowing that based on the actions — and lack of action — of his administration, The Associated Press reports Friday. “Biden hasn’t said whether he’d back a bill introduced by fellow Democrats to strike the death penalty from U.S. statutes. He also hasn’t rescinded Trump-era protocols enabling federal executions to resume and allowing prisons to use firing squads if necessary.”
And on Monday, the Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to reinstate the death penalty for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, arguing that a lower court was wrong to throw out the sentence based on concerns about jury selection and asking the high court to “put this case back on track toward a just conclusion.”
“Biden’s lack of action is unconscionable,” Ashley Kincaid Eve, a lawyer and anti–death penalty activist, tells AP. “This is the easiest campaign promise to keep, and the fact he refuses to keep it … is political cowardice.”
Biden’s “hands-off approach” is “adding to disarray around the death penalty nationwide as pressure increases in some conservative states to find ways to continue executions amid shortages of the lethal-injection drugs,” AP reports. And some capital punishment opponents worry his silence gives the appearance of tacit approval for revived state execution methods like gas chambers and firing squads.
Biden believes the Justice Department “has independence regarding such decisions” as the Tsarnaev motion, White House spokesman Andrew Bates told AP, and he also “believes the department should return to its prior practice, and not carry out executions.”
There are things Biden can do unilaterally, like commute all federal death sentences to life in jail, and he could tell the Justice Department not to schedule any more executions while he is president. But the initial sense of optimism on death row about Biden’s presidency has dissipated, Rejon Taylor, an inmate at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, told AP. “I won’t say that skepticism has settled in, but I will say that most no longer feel that immediate action will happen,” he said, adding that most inmates also don’t believe they will be executed while Biden is president.