I applaud the recent decision by Attorney General Merrick Garland to halt federal executions. This is a very welcome first step, but it is not sufficient. I’ll explain why.
After 17 years without a federal execution, the Trump administration rushed through 13 executions in its final year. Why, after such a long time without a federal execution, would Trump’s AG, William Barr, order 13 deaths? Because, as Chief Prosecutor, he had the power to do so.
No executions happen unless a prosecutor decides to seek death. The Supreme Court, in its 1976 Gregg decision that reinstated the death penalty, set up the legal architecture that way. From the trial level on up, if a prosecutor decides not to seek death, nobody dies.
This is why, at its very core, the administration of death in the US is and will always be capricious and flawed. And it’s a core reason why a moratorium on federal executions can never be enough. Much more is needed.
The current federal moratorium was issued “pending review of policies and procedures” including 3 “weighty concerns” that reveal the troubling administration of death: arbitrariness in application; disparate impact on people of color; and the troubling number of exonerations.
Since 1977 a whopping 185 wrongly-convicted people have been fortunate enough to prove the mistakes that sent them to death row and to win their freedom. Since 1976, for every 9 people executed, one death-row prisoner was exonerated. Talk about a broken system!
The flaws revealed in the federal death penalty also exist at the state level, where the self-serving discretion of politically-driven prosecutors could not be more pronounced. A federal moratorium won’t stop state executions, but it might forge a path for them to follow.
And now, at last, we have leadership in the Department of Justice that recognizes just how broken the system is. No, a moratorium alone is not enough. But I couldn’t be more heartened by the thorough investigation of the whole federal death system: policies and procedures.
I’m also heartily encouraged by the comprehensive array of departments and experts mandated to conduct the review: both civil rights and criminal divisions, and the bureau of prisons, which we expect. But, get this…
…also experienced capital counsel, medical experts and other “relevant stakeholders” including “members of the public as appropriate.”
Who knows? Maybe they’ll listen to citizens like me, who have been researching, writing and speaking out to citizens and lawmakers to persuade them to pull the plug on the entire, government-sanctioned, cruel, broken machinery of death. Stay tuned.

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More from @helenprejean

16 Jul
Should this bill succeed, Sierra Leone will become the 8th African nation to end capital punishment since 2010, following abolition by Gabon, Congo, Madagascar, Benin, Guinea, Chad and Malawi.
It is wonderful to see these nations joining the push to rid the world of a practice that the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission called an “affront to civilized society.”
And it’s something to reflect on, here in the US, that one of the impetuses for abolition in Sierra Leone is how the death penalty has been used as a political tool, just as we have recently witnessed in the 13 Federal executions ordered in Trump's final year as president.
Read 5 tweets
2 Jul
While a moratorium on federal executions has symbolic value, we’ve seen the danger of half-measures that do not fully address the fundamental brokenness of our death penalty system. More is required.
A moratorium with no commutations or legislation during the Obama administration brought us 13 rapid-fire executions during the Trump administration. While we can be confident that President Biden will not execute anyone, that does not limit the actions of future presidents.
I continue to urge President Biden to follow through on his campaign promise and end the federal death penalty. Large steps can be taken through executive action — commutations, dismantling execution facilities, ordering prosecutors to stop seeking death sentences, and more.
Read 4 tweets
20 May
Quin Jones should not have been executed. It was an unnecessary and unwanted execution, a failure of moral leadership. What’s even more disturbing is the fact that the execution took place without any independent media witnesses present due to an “error” by TDCJ.
Due to the lack of media witnesses, we have no idea what happened during the execution, no idea if anything went wrong, and no idea if protocols were followed.
If a mistake this basic can so easily occur, then what kinds of other serious mistakes are happening every time Texas chooses to kill a citizen? This is why we can never trust the government with the power to kill.
Read 5 tweets
5 May
Two recent developments from TX in Clinton Young’s case:
(1) The Midland County trial court is recommending that Clinton should have a new trial.
(2) The former prosecutor who moonlighted as the judge’s clerk while also prosecuting Clinton’s case surrendered his law license.
In Clinton Young’s case, now-former attorney Ralph Petty was simultaneously working on sending Clinton to death row as a prosecutor and moonlighting as the trial judge’s paid clerk and advisor. This is a serious, completely inappropriate conflict of interest.
The Midland County trial court is now recommending that Clinton receive a new trial because the inappropriate prosecutor/clerk/advisor arrangement violated due process, presented a conflict of interest, and constituted “pervasive prosecutorial misconduct.”
Read 4 tweets
27 Apr
Last week, the Fifth Circuit affirmed dismissal of Rodney Reed’s federal lawsuit demanding that Texas officials allow DNA testing of evidence that could prove his innocence. The decision shows how the legal system values rule-following over real justice.
Instead of ordering the DNA testing, the Fifth Circuit allowed the state officials to try out a new argument on appeal that hadn’t been raised in the initial hearing at the lower court.
The Fifth Circuit ruled that Rodney Reed’s lawsuit was brought too late because he only had two years from the time that he learned his rights were being violated to file suit.
Read 5 tweets
9 Apr
An investigation by @guardian reveals that states have spent millions on illicit execution drugs, even requesting shipment in “unmarked boxes and jars.” theguardian.com/world/2021/apr…
Arizona purchased enough execution drugs to kill 200 people, at a cost of $1.5 million, and requested that the drugs be shipped from an undisclosed supplier in “unmarked boxes and jars.”
It is a felony under state and federal law to dispense execution drugs without a valid prescription. Medical practitioners are prohibited from prescribing drugs for use in executions. Arizona’s drug purchase was likely illegal.
Read 4 tweets

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