By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department on Thursday reinstated a two-decades-long dormant policy allowing the federal government’s use of capital punishment and immediately scheduled the executions for five death row federal inmates.
“Congress has expressly authorized the death penalty through legislation adopted by the people’s representatives in both houses of Congress and signed by the President,” Attorney General William Barr said in a statement.
“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.”
The last federal execution took place in 2003. Since then, protracted litigation over the drugs historically used in lethal injection executions prevented the government from continuing the practice, according to Justice Department officials.
U.S. President Donald Trump has called for increasing the use of the death penalty for drug traffickers and mass shooters, a request the department has since laid the groundwork to carry out.
Early in the Trump administration, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered the Federal Bureau of Prisons to examine what steps might be required to resume the use of the death penalty, a Justice Department official said.
In March 2018, Sessions also called on federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty when bringing cases against drug dealers and traffickers as part of a strategy to help combat the opioid crisis.
Most recently in May, the department’s Office of Legal Counsel took steps to make it easier for states to carry out executions by declaring that the Food and Drug Administration lacked the power to regulate lethal injection drugs.
The Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking Democrat, Dianne Feinstein, said Thursday’s announcement was wrong.
“The federal government should be leading the effort to end this brutal and often cruel punishment, not advocating for its return. It’s time we evolve and put this terrible practice behind us,” she said in a statement.
U.S. public support for the death penalty has declined since the 1990s, according to opinion polls, and all European Union nations have abolished it.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres believes the practice should not happen anywhere, spokesman Farhan Haq said.
“All the countries that continue to impose the death penalty on the population are flying in the face of what the U.N. believes is the principled position to end this sort of penalty once and for all,” Haq told reporters.
There are also deep divisions on the U.S. Supreme Court over the death penalty and how it is implemented.
Some liberal justices have said that capital punishment as currently employed in the United States may run afoul of the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. They have also raised questions over lethal injection.
But the conservative-majority court, with two justices appointed by Trump, has given little indication of being willing to rule the death penalty unconstitutional.
There are currently 62 federal inmates on death row, including Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who planted a deadly bomb at the Boston Marathon in 2013.
Of those 62, 41.9 percent are black, 43.6 percent are white, 11.3 percent are Latino, and Asians and Native Americans each make up 1.6 percent of the federal death row population, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Nearly half of all federal death sentences are from Texas, Virginia and Missouri.
“We see really deep geographical and racial bias in the death penalty,” said Cassandra Stubbs, director of the Capital Punishment Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, who added that the Justice Department’s move to bring back executions is out of step with the views of most Americans.
The Justice Department said it has scheduled executions for five federal inmates who have been convicted of horrific murders and sex crimes, with more planned in the future.
All five will be executed by lethal injection using a single drug: pentobarbital.
Since 2010, 14 states have switched to using pentobarbital to carry out more than 200 executions, after they were unable to obtain the chemicals needed to execute people using a drug cocktail.
The federal inmates include Daniel Lewis Lee, a white supremacist who was convicted in Arkansas for murdering a family of three, including an 8-year-old girl.
Another is Lezmond Mitchell, a Native American who was found guilty by a jury in Arizona of stabbing a 63-year-old grandmother and forcing her young granddaughter to sit next to her lifeless body on a car journey before slitting the girl’s throat.
The other three inmates who will be executed are Wesley Ira Purkey, who raped and murdered a teenaged girl; Alfred Bourgeois, who sexually molested and killed his young daughter; and Dustin Lee Honken, who shot and killed five people.
Lee will be the first one to be executed, with the date set for Dec. 9, 2019.
Morris Moon, an attorney for Lee, said in a statement that the trial judge, lead prosecutor and family members of the victims all oppose executing his client, and that unreliable and faulty evidence including hair later proven not to have come from Lee were used against him.
“Given the problems that undermine the fairness and reliability of Danny Lee’s conviction and death sentence, the Government should not move forward with his execution,” Moon said.
The Justice Department said all five executions will take place at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.
“Each of these inmates has exhausted their appellate and post-conviction remedies,” the department added.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; additional reporting by Michelle Nichols from the United Nations; editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Sonya Hepinstall and Jonathan Oatis)