Biden backed off a pledge to abolish the federal death penalty. That’s left an opening for Trump

WASHINGTON — As he prepared to take office three years ago, Joe Biden’s new administration considered a host of possible options to fulfill a campaign promise to end the federal death penalty.

One idea was an executive order, according to people familiar with the matter. But the White House did not issue any or push for legislation in Congress. Six months later, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a moratorium on the federal death penalty to study the protocols used to execute people, a more limited move that has led to no executions under Biden. The Justice Department has since pushed for the death penalty against suspects charged in mass shootings in Pittsburgh and Buffalo.

Biden isn’t talking much about the death penalty today. Former President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has consistently pledged in campaign speeches to demand the execution of drug dealers as part of a national crackdown on crime.

The death penalty has not affected the US presidential race since 1988, when Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis was criticized for showing little emotion when asked during a debate whether he would support capital punishment for perpetrators if his wife would be raped and murdered.

But the issue could soon return to the national spotlight if Trump retakes the White House and moves to resume federal executions, as he has repeatedly promised. That has left some Biden supporters frustrated that he hasn’t done more to prevent a future president from resuming executions, especially considering Trump pushed through 13 in his final six months as president.

“It has always been used as a political talking point. It’s been that way for centuries and it probably always will be that way,” said Robin Maher, executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, which has no official position on the death penalty but has criticized problems in its application. “But I think the American public is seeing that now and is really looking for more serious answers to these very serious problems in our communities.”

The new Biden administration’s deliberations were disclosed by former officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations.

According to Gallup, support for the death penalty against convicted murderers has fallen from 80% in 1994 to 53% last year. And in November, Gallup found in a separate poll that for the first time, more Americans believe the death penalty is being applied unfairly: 50% to 47%.

The vast majority of convicted prisoners are sentenced at the state level. As of early this year, only 44 of the 2,331 people facing the death penalty were being held in federal prison, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. In addition to the federal government, 21 states allow the death penalty, and the death penalty remains legal in six other states that have currently declared a moratorium or otherwise suspended executions.

Alabama attracted international attention last month for its use of nitrogen gas in the execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith, a convicted murderer. Smith appeared to remain conscious for several minutes. For at least two minutes he shook and writhed on the stretcher, sometimes pulling against the restraints.

Biden is the first president to openly oppose the death penalty. On his 2020 campaign website, he stated that he would “commit to passing legislation to abolish the death penalty at the federal level and encouraging states to follow the federal government’s lead.”

Similar language will not appear on his website this year. His campaign declined requests to comment.

After Garland’s moratorium, the Justice Department reversed more than thirty decisions seeking the death penalty. But federal prosecutors announced in January that they are seeking a death sentence for Payton Gendron, who killed 10 black people at a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York, two years ago. Prosecutors successfully argued for the death penalty against Robert Bowers, who killed 11 congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018.

Biden’s stance in 2020 was a change of heart from when he sponsored a landmark 1994 crime bill that expanded the federal death penalty for about 60 crimes — including terrorism, murder of law enforcement officers, large-scale drug trafficking and drive-by shootings. It also once prompted Biden to brag that it could “do everything but hang people for jaywalking.”

Abraham Bonowitz, executive director of Death Penalty Action, which advocates for the abolition of the death penalty, said Biden has “done or said nothing” to deliver on his 2020 pledge but acknowledged that the president’s efforts to do so now “don’t help him” policy.

“If Joe Biden becomes a lame duck, whether it’s at the end of this term, or he gets another term, at the end of that term, I think that’s when we’ll see him act in the manner that he’s capable of . Bonowitz said.

Today, Trump is the one who speaks highly of the death penalty.

It’s an issue that touches on two cornerstones of Trump’s politics since his first bid for president: tapping into anti-immigrant sentiment over the U.S.-Mexico border and trumpeting a common Republican law-and-order refrain that has resonated among voters concerned about crime and drug trafficking. fentanyl across the border.

In a speech announcing his 2024 campaign, Trump called for those “caught selling drugs to face the death penalty for their heinous acts.” More recently, he has pledged to execute drug and human traffickers and even praised Chinese President Xi Jinping’s treatment of drug traffickers.

“President Xi in China controls 1.4 billion people, with an iron hand, without drug problems. You know why?” Trump said this at a recent campaign rally in New Hampshire. “Death penalty for the drug dealers.”

China has problems with opioid abuse, but official statistics ignore most cases and addicts are often denied treatment options.

The 13 federal executions carried out by the Trump administration happened so quickly that they may have contributed to the spread of the coronavirus on federal death row in Indiana.

Those were also the first federal executions since 2003, with the last three taking place after Election Day but before Trump left office — the first time since Grover Cleveland in 1889 that federal prisoners were put to death by a lame-duck president.

The declaration of the death penalty draws cheers from the Trump crowd, but the issue does not enjoy universal support among his conservative base, especially among some religious leaders and staunch opponents of abortion.

“It’s going to be a struggle for some in the community,” said Troy Miller, president and CEO of National Religious Broadcasters. “But I also think there is a lot of support in the community for tough penalties and consequences.”

Ann E. Gillies, a trauma specialist, pastor and author who saw Trump address the National Religious Broadcasters convention, is from Canada, where the death penalty was abolished in 1976. But she said its application in the US would act as a deterrent.

“I always think, ‘Is there room for redemption?’ That’s my perspective,” she said. “But even if you committed the crime, you have to take your time and carry out the punishment.”