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Progressives Call On Biden To Work To Stop Executions


As President Trump's time in office draws to a close, his administration has accelerated the pace of federal executions. Some Democrats want to see the incoming Biden administration take steps to end the practice altogether, but that's not something a president can do alone. NPR's Juana Summers reports.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Earlier this year, the Trump administration ended a stretch of nearly two decades without any federal executions.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The Justice Department has announced that it will resume the federal death penalty...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Two Black men, Brandon Bernard and Alfred Bourgeois, were executed in the last two days...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: ...By lethal injection last night. It was the first execution in 130 years at a federal prison during a presidential lame-duck period.

SUMMERS: Some of those executions have been scheduled for the administration's final days, before President Trump - who is a strong supporter of capital punishment - is replaced by President-elect Biden, who opposes it.

ROBERT DUNHAM: There have never been so many executions scheduled for so late in a presidency during any transition period in the entire history of the United States.

SUMMERS: That was Robert Dunham, the executive director of the non-partisan Death Penalty Information Center. He says that the U.S. government has not had multiple federal executions during a presidential transition since the late 1800s. Former Attorney General William Barr, who recently left the Justice Department, has said that the government is carrying out justice for, quote, "staggeringly brutal murders." Critics of President Trump have denounced the decision to resume executions during an election year as politically motivated. And opponents of capital punishment are focused on what Biden can do when he takes office.

CORI BUSH: He says he opposes the death penalty, so we want him to use his clemency power and end this cruelty once and for all.

SUMMERS: That's Representative-elect Cori Bush of Missouri, a Democrat who will take office next week. Bush has publicly called on Biden to not just commit to a moratorium on the death penalty; she wants him to grant clemency to every person currently on death row. She says a moratorium is a good first step, but it doesn't go far enough because it just staves off a decision until the next administration. President Obama did not use his clemency powers widely to commute federal death sentences to life terms. If he had, death penalty opponents say the people currently facing execution would no longer be on death row.

BUSH: After four years or eight years, however long President Joe Biden is in his seat, we don't want the next person to then come in and to be able to do what the Trump administration is currently doing.

SUMMERS: Bush is one of a group of lawmakers led by Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts who wrote to Biden, calling on him to address the death penalty quickly after taking office. The letter calls capital punishment unjust, racist and defective and argues that the Trump administration has weaponized the death penalty.

Biden's team has said that he plans to work to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level and that he will incentivize states to follow the federal government's example. He has not said whether he would consider commuting the sentences of every person on death row. If Biden does pursue ending the federal death penalty, he won't be able to do that alone. He'd need Congress or a Supreme Court ruling.

Here's Robert Dunham.

DUNHAM: It's clear with the current composition of the U.S. Supreme Court that's not going to happen. So the only way that a Biden administration would be able to end the federal death penalty would be to have some sort of bipartisan support in Congress.

SUMMERS: While support for the death penalty is declining nationally, the level of bipartisan support needed in Congress may be hard to find. The institution is incredibly polarized. And unless Democrats win two runoff elections in Georgia, Republicans will hold control of the Senate. And even if they do win, Democrats will have a slim majority in the House.

Here's Representative-elect Bush again.

BUSH: My hand is raised. The hands of my team are raised. We will help do the work. If he will call on me, if he will call on Rep. Ayanna Pressley and so many others, we will help do the work. Like, put us in, coach.

SUMMERS: Bush says she's hopeful that there's enough support on Capitol Hill to end the practice for good, but that it will mean that Biden must use his bully pulpit alongside organizers on the ground to convince the public that it is an urgent issue worth addressing now.

Juana Summers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.