A new report by the human rights organization Amnesty International urges President Joe Biden to act upon his campaign pledge to work to abolish the death penalty by exercising his constitutional authority to commute the sentences of all federal death row prisoners.

The report, titled The Power of Example: Whither the Biden Death Penalty Promise?, was released on June 27, 2022, just two days before the 50th anniversary of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Furman v. Georgia, which struck down all existing death penalty statutes. Amnesty International argues that “the 50th anniversary of Furman is an opportune moment for the US administration and members of Congress to be reminded that the world is waiting for the USA to do what almost 100 countries have achieved during this past half century — total abolition of the death penalty.”

The report cites the 2020-2021 federal execution spree under President Donald Trump as an example of the egregious nature of the United States’ application of capital punishment, highlighting the arbitrariness, racial disparities, issues of tribal sovereignty, and the executions of people with intellectual and mental disabilities. “When the Trump administration resumed federal executions in July 2020 after a 17-year hiatus, it provided a stark reminder of the horror show that is capital justice in the United States,” said Justin Mazzola, Deputy Director, Research, at Amnesty International USA.

“The President, his administration and Congress must recognize that respect for human dignity and retention of the death penalty are incompatible; that respect for the rule of law must include international human rights law guaranteeing protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty; that upholding universal rights must include upholding the right of everyone to life and freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; and that making international institutions stronger must include implementing the conclusions of UN human rights treaty bodies,” the report urged.

One focus of the report is that, in the 50 years since Furman, most United States presidents have touted the U.S. as a shining example of human rights, while contributing to human rights abuses by advocating for, allowing, or otherwise furthering the use of the death penalty in the United States. “Over the decades, there have been too many throwaway statements made by US officials claiming exemplary US leadership on human rights,” the report says. Amnesty International argues that the continued use of the death penalty in the United States is in violation of international human rights treaties. “The USA has carried out more than 1,500 executions since Furman, even as it has labelled itself as a global human rights champion. Yet international human rights law requires abolition of the death penalty within a reasonable timeframe,” Mazzola said, referring to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the United States ratified 30 years ago.

The report also called the United States a “serial violator” of the Inter-American Human Rights system’s prohibition of executions without full exhaustion of appeals. Amnesty International argued that “[t]he reinstatement of the federal death penalty in 1988 and expansion of it in 1994 were incompatible with the object and purpose of the [American Convention on Human Rights].”

Ultimately, the report argued that President Biden needs to end the use of the federal death penalty in order to lead by example and start to bring about the end of the death penalty in the United States. The report urges President Biden to commute all federal death sentences, citing the arbitrariness present in the federal death penalty. The report points out that the geographic arbitrariness of the federal death penalty – “Eleven of the 16 federal executions (69%) carried out since Furman v. Georgia were of individuals tried and convicted in the South, the region where 82% of the people executed at state level since 1972 had been sentenced to death. Six of the 16 (37.5%) were tried in a single state, Texas. Texas accounts for 38% of all state executions in the USA.” Of the 42 individuals on federal death row, 29 (70%) were sentenced to death in the South, and specifically, 7 (17%) were tried, convicted, and sentenced in Texas.


Read the report here.

Read the Press Release here.