Seventeen U.S. Senators and four Members of Congress who are leading the effort to abolish the federal death penalty have called on U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland (pictured) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) to stop seeking the death penalty in pending and future federal murder trials.

In separate letters sent to Garland on August 9, 2021, the chairs of both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, along with legislative sponsors of death-penalty repeal bills and numerous other Democratic legislative colleagues, urged the Attorney General to go beyond the limited freeze on executions he announced on July 1, 2021 by formally ending federal death penalty prosecutions.

“By refusing to seek the death penalty and add more prisoners to death row,” the Senate letter said, “you can reduce the risk that a future administration will carry out federal executions” at the rate they were conducted during the Trump administration’s unprecedented execution spree in his final six months in office. Calling capital punishment “a deeply flawed and inhumane practice,” the House letter said, “it is incumbent on the Department of Justice to halt all participation in the capital punishment system and we urge the Department of Justice to prohibit attorneys from seeking the death penalty.”

The Senate letter was signed by 17 U.S. Senators, led by Judiciary Committee Chair Richard Durbin (D – Illinois), Judiciary Committee members Patrick Leahy (D – Vermont) and Cory Booker (D – New Jersey), and former Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders (I – Vermont), Amy Klobuchar (D – Minnesota), and Elizabeth Warren (D – Massachusetts). Eleven other Democratic U.S. Senators also signed.

The House of Representatives letter was signed by Representatives Adriano Espaillat (D – New York) and Ayanna Pressley (D – Massachusetts), who have both sponsored bills to abolish the federal death penalty, along with House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D – New York) and Judiciary Committee member Cori Bush (D – Missouri).

The House Letter

The House members commended Garland for the Department of Justice’s recognition of “the substantive and procedural defects of the death penalty,” calling the July 1 moratorium on federal executions “a crucial first step to ending the death penalty once and for all in the United States.” However, the Representatives wrote, “this action alone is insufficient. … Capital punishment is a deeply flawed and inhumane practice that the Department of Justice can and must discontinue.”

The House letter noted the “known deficiencies” in capital punishment that Garland had referenced in his July 1 memorandum, “‘including arbitrariness in its application, disparate impact on people of color, and the troubling number of exonerations’” in capital cases. “[R]acism,” they wrote, is inextricably embedded in the history and application of the death penalty, resulting in the disproportionate killing of Black people” and of defendants convicted of killing white victims. Those who are convicted of killing white victims are “executed at a rate 17 times greater than those convicted of killing Black victims,” the Representatives wrote.

The Representatives called “the injustices of state-sanctioned murder … unambiguous,” and urged the Biden Administration to “fulfill its campaign promise and take bold action to abolish the death penalty and create a more just legal system. … There are no procedural reforms that will eliminate the arbitrariness, anti-Blackness, or imperfectness of the death penalty. This can only be accomplished by putting an end to capital punishment,” they wrote. “Without such bold and definitive action, future administrations may reverse [the Garland moratorium] and cruelly execute Americans without any recourse.”

The Senate Letter

The Senators commended Garland for DOJ’s “recent decisions to impose a moratorium on federal executions pending a review of death penalty policies and procedures and to withdraw several notices of intent to seek the death penalty” that the Trump administration had authorized. Characterizing these actions as “important steps toward ending the injustice of the death penalty,” the Senators urged Garland “to take the additional steps of withdrawing all pending death notices, and authorizing no new death notices, while your review proceeds.”

Echoing Garland’s July 1 memorandum, the Senators expressed “serious concerns about arbitrariness in the application of the death penalty, its disparate impact on people of color, and the alarming number of exonerations in capital cases.” Those concerns, they wrote, support halting the death penalty entirely during the review process, “including prohibiting federal prosecutors from seeking the death penalty,” rather than simply reviewing “the procedures for carrying out the death penalty.”

The Senators noted that Vice President Kamala Harris had been one of the original cosponsors of the Senate bill to abolish the federal death penalty, and expressed their hope that the Administration would support the abolition bill. “[B]ut while the Administration reviews capital punishment policy,” they suggested to Garland, “you can take an important step toward the goal of eliminating the federal death penalty.”

The letters came a week after a New York Times report that the Justice Department had quietly withdrawn Trump administration notices of intent to seek the death penalty in seven cases. However, federal prosecutors in several other cases indicated that the moratorium announcement had not changed the way in which they were going about determining whether to seek the death penalty.