For Years, the Federal Death Penalty Has Been a Thing of the Past. That’s Where It Should Stay.
Brennan Center for Justice
August 11, 2019


“From this day forward,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun in 1994, “I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.” With those words, Blackmun announced that he could no longer square the death penalty with the Constitution and would oppose it at every turn.

In the ensuing years, no federal laws changed, but there have been no federal executions since 2003. The “machinery of death,” at least at the federal level, remained still.

That changed in late July, when Attorney General William Barr announced that the U.S. government would resume executing federal prisoners. Barr named five men who would be the first to die, grimly noting that “additional executions will be scheduled at a later date.”

Attorney General Barr’s justification for resuming capital punishment is everything Justice Brennan feared. Barr’s announcement underscores why the federal death penalty deserves to remain a thing of the past. His arbitrary decision to fast-track the deaths of five men is capricious and cruel, a case of the criminal justice system at its worst just when the stakes matter most.


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