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Over 40 lawmakers sign letter urging Merrick Garland to prioritize abolishing death penalty

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More than 40 lawmakers signed onto a letter this week urging Merrick Garland, President Biden’s nominee for attorney general, to make abolishing the death penalty a priority if he is confirmed.

Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) said he and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), who introduced legislation last year seeking to abolish the federal death penalty after the Trump administration announced it would resume the form of punishment, led 45 of their colleagues in the letter Wednesday.

The letter calls for Garland to immediately begin working with Congress to “enact legislation and resentence those currently on federal death row” once he is confirmed to office. 

“There is much work to be done to bring integrity to the Justice Department, and we look forward to working with the Biden Administration to address systemic racism within our criminal legal system,” the lawmakers wrote. 

“We strongly believe among the first actions of the new administration on this front ought to be fulfilling President Biden’s commitment to working with Congress to end the federal death penalty and incentivizing states to end capital punishment across the country,” they continued.

The federal government began carrying out executions last summer for the first time in more than a decade. The move came a year after the Trump administration announced it would be resuming the form of punishment.

“Under administrations of both parties, the Department of Justice has sought the death penalty against the worst criminals. … 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,” then-Attorney General William Barr said in a statement at the time

The move was met with fierce criticism from criminal justice advocates and a number of Democrats.

Pressley, one of many Democrats who condemned the move by the previous administration to resume federal executions, announced plans to introduce a bill to end the death penalty within hours of the Department of Justice’s announcement of its decision to reinstate the death penalty.

“The death penalty has no place in a just society,” Pressley said on social media at the time, decrying the policy as “racist” and “vile.”

In their letter to Garland this week, Pressley and other lawmakers noted the death penalty had a “disproportionate imposition on Black and brown Americans,” pointing to data showing Black Americans have been overrepresented in executions.

“During the modern death penalty era, beginning with the Supreme Court’s 1976 decision in Gregg v. Georgia, roughly 34 percent of people executed in the United States have been Black, despite Black Americans making up only 13.4 percent of the national population,” they wrote.

They also pointed to what they describe as the “particularly alarming” rate of innocence when it comes to such cases, noting a 2014 study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they said shows “at least 1 in 25 individuals sentenced to death are innocent.”

The lawmakers went on to call the form of punishment a “stain on the United States’ commitment to advancing justice and human rights” and said, considering last year’s widespread protests against police brutality and racism prompted by the police killing of George Floyd, that “abolishing the death penalty would be an important marker as we work to address systemic racism in America, particularly within our criminal justice system.”

In addition to working with Congress to end the federal death penalty and resentence inmates on federal death row, the lawmakers called on Garland to also “withdraw authorization for all pending death penalty trial cases and cease to seek any death sentence” as well as withdraw “any pending death warrants,” among other actions.

Biden has thrown support behind abolishing the death penalty, which he also outlined­ in his Plan for Black America. Since being in sworn last week, he has signed multiple orders aimed at advancing racial equity in the nation.

In order to officially abolish the form of federal punishment in the country, Biden will need the help of Congress to pass legislation, but it is within the president’s power to issue a moratorium on federal executions with an executive order.

In their letter to Garland, the lawmakers said “it is incumbent upon the Biden Administration to reverse course and work to make America a more just society.” 

Among those listed as signees on the letter include Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), Cori Bush (D-Mo.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.).

Tags Adriano Espaillat Ayanna Pressley Barbara Lee Bobby Rush Bonnie Watson Coleman Joe Biden Merrick Garland Pramila Jayapal Rashida Tlaib Ro Khanna William Barr

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