Joe Biden, Who Vowed to Abolish Executions, Urged to Commute Death Row Sentences

As President Joe Biden approaches the mid-way point of his first 100 days in office, activists and civil rights groups are continuing to call on him to take action on ending the federal death penalty.

Thirteen inmates were put to death at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana during an unprecedented run of federal executions during the final months of the Trump administration.

Several were carried out during former president Donald Trump's lame duck months and the final three executions took place just days before Biden's inauguration.

On a campaign website, Biden—a death penalty opponent—pledged that, as president, he would "work to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government's example." But he has yet to speak on the issue since becoming president.

Campaigners are urging him to take more immediate action, by formally reinstating the moratorium on the federal death penalty, as well as commute the sentences of those on federal death row.

Earlier this week, Rev. Sharon Risher, who lost her mother and other relatives in the Charleston church massacre, called on the president to stop federal executions—even though it would spare the life of their killer, Dylann Roof.

Abraham Bonowitz, the director of Death Penalty Action, says the razing of the death chamber at the Terre Haute prison would be a "powerfully symbolic move" for the president to take.

"It would send an unmistakable message [that] our government will no longer kill its prisoners," he told Newsweek. "Governor [Gavin] Newsom in California passed out photos of the execution apparatus at San Quentin being carted away shortly after announcing that no prisoner would be executed on his watch."

Terre Haute prison in Indiana
A guard's tower and concertina wire mark the perimeter of the Federal Prison in Terre Haute, Indiana 09 April, 2001. Scott Olson/AFP via Getty Images

Cassandra Stubbs, the director of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, told Newsweek: "We expect President Biden will honor his campaign promise to work to end the death penalty. After the horrific killing spree we saw under the Trump administration, the importance of this promise could not be more clear.

"That killing spree took place after 17 years of no federal executions. The checks and balances that are supposed to prevent the unjust executions—including the Department of Justice's commitment to fair process and the Supreme Court's obligation to review constitutional claims—all failed."

Both Bonowitz and Stubbs said they were encouraged by remarks by Merrick Garland, Biden's attorney general nominee, on the federal death penalty.

Garland told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearing last week the death penalty gives him "great pause" because of the number of exonerations that have occurred in death penalty convictions.

He also expressed concern about what he described as the "almost randomness or arbitrariness" of the death penalty's application and the "enormously disparate impact" it has on Black people.

Garland also said he believes it is likely the Biden administration could issue a moratorium on the federal death penalty.

But Stubbs said the president needed to go further .

"While we were encouraged by Judge Garland's remarks during his confirmation hearing that a formal moratorium on executions is likely, following his confirmation, it is not enough for President Biden to refrain from scheduling executions," she said.

"He actively must work to dismantle this system, starting by issuing a formal moratorium on capital prosecutions and executions and commuting the sentences of all the people on the federal row."

However, Bonowitz says he is "satisfied that the President is laying a path to do what he said he would do, which is to lead an effort to abolish the federal death penalty. The evidence is clear in the testimony the attorney general nominee gave."

He added: "The President's staff was very responsive when we reached out to them during the transition period, and I trust that they have a plan."

Bonowitz added that he believes the "onus is on Congress" and that's where his group are focusing their efforts—on shoring up support for the Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act of 2021, bicameral legislation that was announced by Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Sen. Richard Durbin earlier this year.

"We believe that President Biden will sign the Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act of 2021 when we get it to his desk, and that it is possible to complete that task as a priority in the first 100 days of the Biden Administration," he said.

The White House has been contacted for comment.