A federal judge last week halted the scheduled executions of four federal inmates, thwarting the Trump administration’s plan to resume such executions after a 16-year hiatus. The ruling involves a technical legal issue regarding methods of execution, but it’s an opportune time to revisit the bigger question of whether capital punishment should be employed by the federal government at all.
Public opinion and state policies are moving in exactly the opposite direction from the administration on this issue. It’s time to declare that America’s government shouldn’t be in the execution business.
The federal government hasn’t executed anyone since 2003. One factor is a law that says federal executions must be conducted “in the manner prescribed by the state of conviction.” That became complicated when different states began employing different combinations of execution drugs, some of them hard to come by.
The Trump administration announced in July it intends to resume federal executions using one method — a single pentobarbital injection — regardless of which state hosts the execution.
The administration argues this adheres to the law since all 29 death-penalty states currently use some form of lethal injection, even though different states use different drugs or combinations of drugs. U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan disagreed and halted the executions. The administration is expected to appeal.
Behind all this tinkering with “the machinery of death,” as the late Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun famously put it, is the wider point: In the 16 years since the federal government last executed a prisoner, Americans have increasingly soured on the entire concept of capital punishment — a practice already shown to be racially biased, with no deterrent effect and an unacceptable risk of condemning the innocent.
When the last federal prisoner was executed, public support for capital punishment stood at around 70%; today it’s around 50%. State-level policies reflect that change, with a clear trend in the past decade of death-penalty states becoming non-death-penalty states by action of the courts, legislatures or voters.
The frequency of executions since the national death penalty moratorium was lifted in 1976 peaked in 1999 at 98 and has been declining since. Generally, fewer than two dozen inmates a year are executed these days. Eleven death-penalty states haven’t executed anyone in a decade or more.
The death penalty, this newspaper has long argued, is intrinsically flawed, discriminatory, ineffective at crime prevention and fundamentally immoral. It isn’t about sympathy for the guilty, who — like the four federal prisoners at issue now — tend to be the worst of the worst. Rather, it’s about the axiom that civilized societies don’t kill their own citizens. Period.
It’s a conclusion that Americans are increasingly reaching. It’s time for America’s government to reflect that evolution.