Former public defender: DOJ plan to resume federal executions a 'recipe for problems'

Former public defender Robert Dunham on Monday said that the Trump administration’s plan to resume federal executions after nearly two decades is a “recipe for problems,” saying that such a move could catch some authorities unprepared if anything goes wrong. 

“What we’ve seen is that there’s been 15 years of no executions,” Dunham, now the executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, said in an appearance on Hill.TV.

“Now you’re going to carry out five executions in the span of five weeks, three executions in the span of five days with personnel that have not carried out any executions at all,” he continued. “That particular compressed schedule if it goes forward is a recipe for problems.”

Dunham explained that federal authorities carrying out the executions need to be properly trained.

“These are going to be the first executions, so you know they’re going to be legal challenges — they frequently go on until the last minute and so you’ve got potentially unprepared personnel facing a situation that none of them has faced in a period of 15 years,” he told Hill.TV.

The Justice Department announced last week that it plans to reinstate the federal death penalty, beginning with the executions of death-row inmates later this year. All five of the inmates that Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrHillicon Valley: Pelosi works to remove legal protections for tech companies from USMCA | Treasury sanctions Russian group over 0 million hack | Facebook sues Chinese individuals for ad fraud | Huawei takes legal action against FCC Biden gets in testy exchange in Iowa: 'You're a damn liar' Huawei to sue US over new FCC restrictions MORE named in his release were convicted for the murders of children. 

“The Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” Barr’s statement read in part.

Dunham, meanwhile, cast doubt over whether the executions, which are scheduled for December 2019 and January 2020, will actually move forward. 

“In the statement last week, Attorney General Barr said he was directing the bureau of prisons to adopt a new protocol, which is going to be a single drug — pentobarbital — the same drug that’s used in Texas and Georgia and Missouri,” he said.

“But the difficulty as a legal matter is you can’t say this is our new protocol, you have to go through the rule-making process,” he added.

Dunham said this compressed system doesn’t allow for “meaningful consideration” for ensuring whether the drugs were obtained legally by a drug company with the appropriate health and safety records.

“If you’re going to have a death penalty — the ultimate in the law — I think it’s critical that we follow the law,” he told Hill.TV.

Barr's announcement comes as the number of executions in the U.S. has declined over the last decade.

According to a report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of death-row inmates had fallen for the 17th consecutive year in 2017.

It also comes amid concerns about whether capital punishment disproportionately impacts African Americans. Dunham said there is still a disproportionate number of people of color who are on death rows around the country, saying this discrimination generally happens in two stages.

“The first is who gets capitally prosecuted — what kind of case and there we see a ‘victim preference if you will’ and that’s where you get the argument that black lives don’t matter because you are much more likely to be capitally prosecuted if you’ve committed an offense against a white person and particularly against a white woman.”

A number of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have spoken out against the Justice Department’s plan.

“Let me be clear: capital punishment is immoral and deeply flawed. Too many innocent people have been put to death,” Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisCastro hits fundraising threshold for December debate Poll: Majority of voters name TV as primary news source Buttigieg: Harris 'deserves to be under anybody's consideration' for vice president MORE (D-Calif.), who is a presidential contender, tweeted Thursday following the announcement. “We need a national moratorium on the death penalty, not a resurrection."

— Tess Bonn