There has not been a federal execution since 2003 and there about 60 federal inmates on death row. However, last year, the many death penalty debacles experienced by the states became the fulcrum that slowly moved the Obama Administration toward abolishing the federal death penalty. A botched execution in Oklahoma brought national attention to the issue, public opinion polls shifted and Obama declared it was time to “ask ourselves some difficult and profound questions.” Obama then directed Attorney General Holder to review the efficacy of capital punishment in the federal criminal justice system.
At the DOJ, a proposal soon began to take shape among Holder and senior officials: The administration could declare a formal moratorium on the federal death penalty because medical experts could not guarantee that the lethal drugs used did not cause terrible suffering. Such a declaration would have pressured states to do the same and would bolster the legal argument that the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment.
As the DOJ sought advice from experts on both sides of the issue, opposition to the idea came from unexpected corners. Some of the most outspoken voices against the death penalty also urged the most caution, fearful that a federal announcement would actually do more harm than good. Also, inside the DOJ, some officials opposed a formal moratorium because it would eliminate the option for the death penalty in terrorism cases like the one against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who faces a possible death sentence for the 2013 bombings at the Boston Marathon.
In the end, the question never made it to Obama’s desk. Last fall, Holder announced plans to resign, and officials said it would be inappropriate to recommend a major policy change on his way out of office, then leave it up to his successor to carry it out. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, who was sworn in this week, told senators during her confirmation hearing that the death penalty “is an effective penalty.” A DOJ spokeswoman confirmed the review of the penalty continues “and we have, in effect, a moratorium in place on federal executions in the meantime.”