A coalition of 82 civil rights and advocacy organizations have called on President Joe Biden to honor his campaign promise of “ensuring equality, equity, and justice in our criminal legal system” by taking executive action to end federal executions. The groups, led by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, asked Biden to commute the sentences of everyone on federal death row, dismantle the federal death chamber, rescind the federal execution protocol and other guidelines issued by President Trump, direct federal prosecutors not to seek death sentences, and impose a formal moratorium on federal executions. All of the proposed actions, the groups said, can be achieved without legislative approval.

The letter to President Biden emphasizes inequity and inaccuracy in the administration of capital punishment. It calls the death penalty “cruel, ineffective, and irreversible” and stresses the need to redress racial disparities in its application as part of the government response to the nationwide protests for racial justice that took place in 2020. The transformation of the criminal legal system that those protests demanded, the coalition wrote, “cannot occur without addressing the role the death penalty has played in reinforcing false and racialized perceptions of dangerousness, and espousing the idea that public safety is promoted and justice is achieved through harsh punishment.”

Echoing Biden’s own campaign platform, which highlighted the issue of innocence in expressing Biden’s opposition to capital punishment, the letter says, “Since 1973, more than 170 individuals have been sentenced to death and exonerated on innocence grounds, demonstrating the high propensity for error in our criminal legal system and the unfathomable consequences that may follow. The only way to eliminate the possibility of executing an innocent person is to do away with the punishment altogether.”

The organizations, which also include the ACLU, Amnesty International, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, several disability rights groups, religious organizations, and state-level anti-death penalty organizations, call the Trump administration’s execution spree “disgraceful.” In an accompanying press release, Cynthia Roseberry, deputy director of policy for ACLU’s Justice Division, said the recent federal executions “senselessly spread COVID-19 and defied the laws and norms that were intended to act as guardrails. As states around the country are increasingly turning their backs on the death penalty, it is imperative that President Biden take every step in his power to ensure that the atrocities we saw under the Trump administration can never take place again.”

The letter concludes with a call for Biden to use his presidential power to uphold the values he has extolled both during his candidacy and in the early days of his presidency. “By taking immediate action to commute the sentences of the 49 individuals on federal death row,” it says, “you have the ability to show that the Biden-Harris administration will govern with mercy and will work to put the might of the federal government behind policies that recognize, reflect, and respect the dignity, humanity, and rights of all individuals.”


Michael Tarm and Michael Balsamo, 82 advo­ca­cy groups call on Biden to end fed­er­al exe­cu­tions, Associated Press, February 9, 2021; News Release, MORE THAN 80 CIVIL RIGHTS ORGANIZATIONS ASK PRESIDENT BIDEN TO COMMUTE FEDERAL DEATH SENTENCES AND ISSUEMORATORIUM, ACLU, February 92021.

Read the coali­tion’s let­ter.