Anti-death penalty group to rally in Washington, press Biden to end federal executions

An anti-death penalty group is planning to host a rally on Monday in Washington, D.C. to demand an end to the death penalty for federal inmates.

The Abolitionist Action Committee rally will call on Congress to pass the Federal Death Penalty Abolition Act of 2021, which would end capital punishment at the federal level and require all 44 federal inmates currently on death row to be resentenced.

The Department of Justice under former President Trump resumed federal executions in 2020, ending a 17-year hiatus.

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Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, the lead sponsor of the bill, said last week that the 13 federal inmates executed under the Trump administration are more than the total number put to death by the 11 preceding presidents in the last 70 years.

“This included the execution of individuals who were intellectually disabled – that’s a grave injustice that highlighted the basic immorality of the death penalty,” the Illinois Democrat said.

Mr. Durbin, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, also took a jab at the Supreme Court and said the “conservative majority refused to ensure that legal challenges by individuals on death row received adequate consideration.”

“Carrying out these executions during the pandemic needlessly endangered even more lives,” he added.

His bill currently has 19 co-sponsors and its companion legislation in the House, sponsored by Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Massachusetts Democrat, has 78 co-sponsors.

Although President Biden campaigned on promises to end the federal death penalty, he has yet to take any action. The Abolitionist Action Committee hopes to change that.

The committee’s sponsor, Death Penalty Action, launched an online petition to “Abolish & Demolish the Death Penalty” which, as of Friday afternoon, has amassed 5,408 signatures of the 6,400 sought.

The petition calls on Mr. Biden to commute all federal death sentences and to order the demolition of the federal government’s execution chamber, known as the “Death House,” which is located at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

The death penalty “treats people differently based on race, money, politics and geography, rather than the severity of the crime,” the petition states.

“We can and must end the death penalty and repurpose the cost savings to provide better services for all families of murder victims and other co-victims, and greater efforts to prevent murders from happening at all.”

According to a report by the Death Penalty Information Center, two of the 13 federal prisoners put to death under the Trump administration were severely mentally ill, two had strong evidence of an intellectual disability and two contracted the coronavirus in the weeks leading up to their executions.

The last three federal inmates who were executed received lethal injections just days before Mr. Biden was inaugurated.

Lisa Montgomery, 52, was put to death for strangling a Missouri woman in 2004 and cutting her unborn baby out of her stomach. She then tried to pass the baby off as her own. The baby survived. Montgomery was convicted of federal kidnapping resulting in death.

She was executed on Jan. 13, 2021, and was the first woman to be put to death by the federal government in 67 years.

The next day, Corey Johnson, 52, was executed for his involvement in the gang-related killings of 11 people over 45 days in 1992. He was convicted of seven counts of murder in furtherance of continuing criminal enterprise.

Two days later, Dustin John Higgs, 48, was put to death for ordering the killings of three women at a wildlife refuge in Maryland in 1996. He was convicted of three counts of first-degree premeditated murder, three counts of first-degree felony murder and three counts of kidnapping resulting in death.

Under the Biden administration, Attorney General Merrick Garland paused federal executions in June while the DOJ launched a review of changes to death penalty policies under Mr. Trump.

The policy changes include the authorization of firing squads, fewer restrictions on lethal injection drugs and a reduction in the amount of notice given to prisoners before their executions.

“The Department of Justice must ensure that everyone in the federal criminal justice system is not only afforded the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States, but is also treated fairly and humanely,” Mr. Garland said. “That obligation has special force in capital cases.”

Monday’s rally is set to begin at 10 a.m. on the sidewalk in front of the U.S. Supreme Court and attendees are also planning to march to the U.S. Capitol and the Hart Senate Office Building.

The event comes on the 45th anniversary of the first state-ordered execution in the U.S. after the Supreme Court upheld new death penalty laws in 1976. Gary Gilmore, who was convicted of killing Max Jensen and Ben Bushnell, was executed by a firing squad in Utah in 1977.

“Every 5 years we risk arrest in nonviolent civil disobedience on the Supreme Court steps in Washington, D.C. to mark the anniversary of the first execution in the modern era,” the committee website states.

Eighteen people were arrested at the last rally in 2017, according to the committee.

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