The announcement by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) that it intends to resume federal executions after a 16-year hiatus has sparked commentary from across the political spectrum and emboldened the Arizona Attorney General to seek a resumption of executions in that state. Responses from conservative pundits demonstrated the increasing bipartisan skepticism towards the death penalty. Catholic bishops reasserted the Church’s now unequivocal opposition to capital punishment. Editorial boards reflected regional differences in perspective.

A number of conservative commentators voiced strong opposition to the DOJ decision, saying it violated conservative values. Jared Olsen (pictured), a Republican member of the Wyoming House of Representatives who has sponsored legislation to abolish that state’s death penalty, noted the continuing conservative movement away from capital punishment as “more conservatives have come to realize that capital punishment conflicts irreconcilably with their principles of valuing life, fiscal responsibility and limited government.” In an op-ed in in The New York Times, Olsen questioned the administration of the federal death penalty, writing: “Punishment for crime has historically been a state prerogative. Yet many of the people on federal death row are there for crimes that have little to do with a real federal interest.” An opinion article for Fox News by Hannah Cox, the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, described the death penalty as “a failed Big Government program” that offends conservative values, and said “[o]ur federal government is failing by embracing it.”

Two opinion pieces in The Federalist, a right-leaning news website, also criticized the federal government’s use of the death penalty. “Not only is it a barbaric mechanism for a modern government to use, but it is used in a wholly imperfect justice system, prone to human error,” wrote Molly Davis. “Allowing the government to decide when to end a person’s life based on the criminal laws it writes is one of the most tyrannical powers a society can grant a central authority. … Anyone who believes in personal liberty should oppose capital punishment.” In the same publication, Federalist assistant editor Kylee Zempel presents several conservative arguments for ending the death penalty, which she calls “objectively bad policy.” In The Spectator, Stephen Daisley called the death penalty “red tape threaded into a noose” and said “on conservative grounds it is no longer defensible.” He noted that its high cost violates principles of fiscal conservatism, and that “however much money is spent on capital punishment, there is little evidence it works.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops criticized the administration’s decision to schedule five execution dates. In a statement on behalf of the Conference, Bishop Frank J. Dewane wrote: “In light of [the Church’s] long held and strongly maintained positions, I am deeply concerned by the announcement by the United States Justice Department that it will once again turn, after many years, to the death penalty as a form of punishment.” The statement urged federal officials to “abandon the announced plans for executions.” Cardinal Blase J. Cupich called the announcement “gravely injurious to the common good, as it effaces the God-given dignity of all human beings, even those who have committed terrible crimes.”

Local newspapers in two regions that have seen major federal death-penalty cases also opined on the decision. The Rutland (Vermont) Herald, which had closely covered the federal case of Donald Fell, published an editorial opposing the resumption of federal executions. Vermont does not have the death penalty, but Fell was sentenced to death under federal law. His sentence was overturned and he was resentenced to life without parole in 2018. The Herald editorial board called the decision to resume executions “another disgrace to this nation.” It wrote: “Retribution solves nothing; and capital criminals — of which we have many — are better off jailed with no hope of parole. That is plenty enough punishment without resorting to killing.” On the other hand, the Texarkana (Arkansas) Gazette lauded the DOJ announcement. The Gazette editors called capital punishment “something that should not be taken lightly.” However, it wrote, “there is a time for that punishment. After the sentence is passed there is the appeals process. The condemned have their justice. But when the appeals are exhausted, there are still family and friends of the victims waiting for their justice. Now, thanks to Barr and the Trump administration, it looks like that justice will finally come.” One of the five pending execution cases is a Texas case, and another is from the Texarkana border region of Arkansas.

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich piggybacked on the federal move, writing a letter to Governor Doug Ducey seeking to resume executions in the state. Arizona has not put any prisoner to death since the botched execution of Joseph Wood in 2014. Witnesses reported that Wood gasped and snorted more than 600 times over a nearly two-hour-long period as the state injected 15 doses of execution drugs. Executions were on hold pending now completed litigation in federal court. Brnovich’s letter said that the federal government’s announcement “suggests that the federal government has successfully obtained pentobarbital” and the state attorney general asked for the governor’s assistance in obtaining pentobarbital for executions.


Carol Zimmermann, Catholic lead­ers object to rein­state­ment of fed­er­al death penal­ty, Catholic News Service, July 25, 2019; Jared Olsen, I’m a Republican and I Oppose Restarting Federal Executions, The New York Times, July 29, 2019; Molly Davis, Don’t Strengthen The Death Penalty, Abolish It, The Federalist, July 29, 2019; Kylee Zempel, We Should Repeal The Death Penalty, But Not For The Reasons You Think, The Federalist, July 29, 2019; Stephen Daisley, The death penal­ty is red tape thread­ed into a noose, The Spectator, July 29, 2019; Hannah Cox, Opinion: AG Barr is wrong to resume exe­cu­tions – Death penal­ty goes against con­ser­v­a­tive prin­ci­ples, Fox News, July 26, 2019; Editorial, Why?, The Rutland Herald, July 25, 2019; Editorial, Final Justice, Texarkana Gazette, July 26, 2019; Lauren Castle, Arizona attor­ney gen­er­al asks gov­er­nor for help get­ting drugs to resume exe­cu­tions, Arizona Republic, July 262019.