With 12 in Texas on federal death row, Justice Department resumes executions

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U.S. Attorney General William Barr testifies before the Senate Appropriations Committee in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on May 1, 2019, in Washington, D.C. - Ken Cedeno/Sipa USA/TNS

AUSTIN, Texas — The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this week declined to hear a challenge to the Trump administration’s revised federal death penalty practice, and the four men who appealed their executions are scheduled to be put to death this summer.

The U.S. Justice Department has said additional executions will be set at a later date. The last federal execution, in any state, took place in 2003.

None of the four cases is from Texas, but even if the Supreme Court had temporarily blocked the men’s executions, such a decision would not have had an effect on those on federal death row in the Lone Star State, experts say. Any delay would only be temporary while the justices considered the case.

Texas, though, has more prisoners on federal death row than any other state.

“The federal death penalty is geographically arbitrary,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “It’s not based on where in the country the worst of the worst crimes occur. It’s based on where federal prosecutors and federal judges are part of a culture that promotes capital punishment.

Federal death row is disproportionately people from Texas, Missouri and Virginia, Dunham said. “All of which have a history of disproportionate state use of capital punishment,” he added.

Twelve men in Texas are on federal death row: seven are Black, four are white and one is Latino. In some cases, the crimes took place more than 20 years ago.

Last Monday, Supreme Court justices rejected an appeal from four inmates who were convicted of killing children. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor noted that they would have blocked the executions from going forward.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr on June 15 had directed the federal Bureau of Prisons to schedule the executions, ending an informal moratorium on federal capital punishment.

Experts say the federal government may have set execution dates for these specific prisoners because their crimes involved children. Other prisoners have been on federal death row longer.

“The administration is banking on the fact that people will be horrified by these crimes and not care that the administration is … carrying out three executions in the span of five days after not having executed anyone for 17 years,” Dunham said. “That’s dangerous, because the more political and more emotional decisions are about capital punishment, the less reliable the judicial process is.”

Three of the inmates are scheduled to be executed in July, and the fourth man is set to be executed in August.

“The American people, acting through Congress and presidents of both political parties, have long instructed that defendants convicted of the most heinous crimes should be subject to a sentence of death,” Barr said in a statement last month. “The four murderers whose executions are scheduled today have received full and fair proceedings under our Constitution and laws. We owe it to the victims of these horrific crimes, and to the families left behind, to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”

Part of the reason federal executions have not been carried out since 2003 is because of a widespread shortage during the Obama administration of drugs used in lethal injections, the so-called three-drug cocktail.

Barr announced last year that federal capital punishment would resume with the use of a single drug, pentobarbital sodium.

The issue before the Supreme Court was whether the Trump administration’s drug protocol violates the Federal Death Penalty Act, which says that the state where a capital crime was committed should determine the method of execution.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has said that, if elected, he would eliminate the death penalty at the federal level — and experts concur that the prospect of more federal executions after this summer will likely depend on who wins the White House in November.


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