Editorial: The new life in the death penalty
The death penalty is alive and well in the federal government.
On Thursday, U.S. Attorney General William Barr resuscitated the punishment that has languished since 2014 when the Obama administration began a review.
That review is complete and executions are being scheduled. The first five death row inmates who will be executed have been announced. Three are set to die in December.
So is this just another reversal of an Obama policy?
Not quite. It goes back further. The federal government hasn’t executed anyone in 16 years, according to the Bureau of Prisons. That’s almost as long as Pennsylvania has gone without an execution.
Kidnapper Louis Jones received lethal injection in 2003 at USP Terre Haute, the same prison where Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and murderer Juan Raul Garza met their ends in 2001.
Then this is a return to prior practice?
Not so much. Before McVeigh, the U.S. government hadn’t executed anyone since 1963. While states have wielded the needle, the electric chair and the gas chamber more liberally, the federal government has executed only 37 people since 1927. Texas executed 40 in 2000 alone.
The change comes from a Trump administration that has turned in different directions on crime during his first campaign and since taking office.
On the one hand, President Trump has advocated hard stances against criminals while also having son-in-law Jared Kushner work successfully on popular, bipartisan prison reform. In 2018, the president suggested drug dealers should get the death penalty.
The announced list includes no Pennsylvania inmates, although Philadelphia drug kingpin Kaboni Savage is on federal death row, which has to be a more uncertain place to live than it was two days ago.
But Pittsburgh could be an early focus of a new spotlight on the federal death penalty because of Robert Bowers, who is facing 63 federal charges — 22 of them death penalty crimes — for the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in October. Prosecutors have not decided whether they will seek the death penalty, but until Barr’s announcement, it was moot.
Now it’s not. Now a decision should be made, because the death penalty is no longer a distant threat. It’s a pending promise.