Federal Execution and United States v. Tsarnaev

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Since 1991, American support for the death penalty has steadily declined. According to Statista, in 1991, approximately 76% of Americans supported the death penalty. Alternatively, in a 2021 survey, only 54% of Americans reported supporting the death penalty. What does this decline in numbers indicate regarding the changes within American society and the overall political climate? After 16 years of being paused, the Trump administration, to the surprise of many, reinstated the federal death penalty, as reported by Business Insider in a 2019 article. In United States v. Tsarnaev[i], the First Circuit ruled in favor of vacating the death penalty sentence of the Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, representing a pivotal shift away from previous support of the death penalty.

The reinstatement of the federal death penalty allowed the government to order the death penalty as punishment for federal offenses. The Trump administration has identified the reason for reinstating the federal death penalty as hinging upon an obligation to victims, as expressed by Attorney General William Barr[ii]. Despite these contentions, heightened disapproval for the death penalty sparked controversy across the nation. In response to this, organizations such as “The Innocence Project” vie for a moratorium on capital punishment[iii]. This vying results from The Innocence Project’s investigations into wrongful convictions over the past 15 years wherein more than 300 individuals were exonerated, many due to DNA testing not available at the time of their conviction. Moreover, according to their campaign website, the Biden administration asserts that in alignment with the knowledge that death penalty cases are not correct every time, Biden supports passing legislation that eliminates the death penalty at the federal level, which also furthers the legislation and incentivizes states to follow suit.

Attorney General Asserts a Prolific Obligation to Victims

Despite the administration’s knowledge of several botched state executions, one taking forty-three minutes for the individual to die following a lethal injection, the federal death penalty was still reinstated.[iv] The Attorney General defended the continuation of executions by clarifying that new methods will involve using a single drug instead of three. Even still, numerous cases continue to be re-examined following executions and indicate many lives wrongfully taken, and countless individuals later found to have been not guilty. Here it is necessary to examine whether the loss of one innocent life is worth continuing support of capital punishment. If society begins to consider for a moment that one innocent individual, wrongfully accused, could potentially be a family member, friend, or spouse, perhaps then the support for capital punishment will decrease even further.

The Innocence Project Fights Back

As reviews of prior cases continue to occur, time and time again, rulings have been overturned due to various elements from false witness statements to destroyed or suppressed evidence, blatant tampering with evidence, intimidating of witnesses and defendants, failure, refusal, or inability to test DNA, and many others. Even amid hundreds of exonerated individuals, the Trump administration followed through with its reenactment of the federal death penalty resulting in 13 federal executions prior to President Biden taking office.[v] Based on surveys of public opinion as reported by Statista, support for the death penalty has been at the lowest in the past 50 years.[vi] For this reason, The Innocence Project seeks to end the death penalty on the federal and state level urging the community to consider the wrongful convictions of innocent people.

Biden Administration to Allegedly Support Ending the Federal Death Penalty

The Biden administration boasted on their campaign website a commitment to “reform our criminal justice system,” seeking to root out disparities within the system and end profiteering off the criminal justice system, promising to investigate prosecutorial discretion, to invest in social work programs, and committing to decriminalizing the use of cannabis as well as eliminating the death penalty.[vii] However, despite these promises, Biden’s administration had not signed any legislation regarding ending the death penalty by the end of 2021. As a result, there is justifiable uncertainty regarding whether the administration truly supported the end to capital punishment. Additionally, the Biden administration rejected several death row prisoners’ applications requesting that they each receive a resentencing of life without parole.

Although the Biden administration seems to be leaning towards supporting the federal death penalty, only time will provide evidence to support the administration’s ultimate stance. Be it through a moratorium on federal evictions or an executive order commuting the sentences of those on federal death row, Biden has several options to show his commitment to ending the harm caused by the support of the federal death penalty. Consequently, if the Biden administration takes the research’s advice, they will likely garner the most significant support by abolishing capital punishment at the federal level. Such an act will likely result in most states following suit and eventual integration on all levels. Moreover, research predicts, such as is presented by Statista, that steps to repeal the federal death penalty will likely win the most support for the Biden administration in terms of re-election.

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References

[i] United States v. Tsarnaev, 968 F.3d 24 (2020) U.S. App. LEXIS 24226

[ii] Ben Miller and Daniel Harawa, Why the Attorney General’s Concern About Crime Victims and Their Families Rings Hollow (Jan. 06, 2020), https://theappeal.org/william-barr-death-penalty-crime-victims/.

[iii] The Death Penalty (Feb. 10, 2009), https://innocenceproject.org/the-death-penalty/.

[iv] Sean Murphy, Oklahoma Executes Inmate Who Dies Vomiting and Convulsing (Oct. 28, 2021), https://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/oklahoma-asks-us-supreme-court-lift-execution-stays-80839004.

[v] Holly Honderich, In Trump’s Final Days, A Rush of Federal Executions (Jan. 16, 2021), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-55236260.

[vi] Statista Research Department, Opinion of U.S. Citizens on the Death Penalty 1936-2021 (Dec. 01, 2021), https://www.statista.com/statistics/262929/opinion-of-us-citizens-on-the-death-penalty/.

[vii] The Biden Plan for Strengthening America’s Commitment to Justice, https://joebiden.com/justice/.

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Currently pursuing a Juris Doctor at Western State College of Law, freelance writer Charnell Gilchrist, a North Carolina native, now spends her free time writing in sunny Aliso Viejo, CA.

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