Congress: Bill To End Inhumane Federal Death Penalty Reintroduced

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WASHINGTON – Thursday, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (MA-07) and U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, reintroduced the Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act of 2023, bicameral legislation to prohibit the use of the death penalty at the federal level and require re-sentencing of those currently on death row.

“State-sanctioned murder is not justice, and it’s time we abolish the cruel, racist, and fundamentally flawed death penalty that has been weaponized against Black, brown and low-income people for far too long,” said Congresswoman Pressley. “With momentum growing across the country, Congress must follow suit and pass our bill to end the federal death penalty once and for all. I’m grateful to Chairman Durbin and our movement partners for their continued partnership and commitment to getting this done.”

The death penalty is deeply flawed and disproportionately imposed on Black and Brown and low-income people in America,” said Senator Durbin “Our bill follows the lead of 23 states, including Illinois, by finally putting an end to this failed and unjust policy at the federal level. I thank Congresswoman Pressley and our colleagues who are joining us in this effort.”

George Stinney executed at 14

The Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act of 2023 would end the use of the death penalty by the federal government. Specifically, the bill would prohibit the imposition of the death penalty as punishment for any violation of federal law and would require the re-sentencing of those previously sentenced to death row. The legislation was originally introduced by Durbin and Pressley in July 2019 following the U.S. Department of Justice’s announcement that it would resume the use of the death penalty.

In January, Durbin and Pressley submitted a comment letter in response to a Department of Justice (DOJ) Request for Information regarding the regulations governing federal executions.  Their comment letter urged DOJ to rescind all of the Trump Administration’s November 27, 2020, amendments to the manner of execution regulations.  These amendments allowed former Attorney General William Barr and DOJ to bypass certain regulatory steps in ordering federal executions; expand the permissible methods of execution beyond lethal injection; and authorize the use of state facilities and personnel in federal executions, among other changes.  The comment letter also urged Attorney General Garland to keep in place the current moratorium on federal executions, which began on July 1, 2021, and to take the further steps of withdrawing all pending death notices and authorizing no new death notices.

The Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act of 2023 is endorsed by 415 organizations.  A full list of endorsing organizations can be found here.

“I have personally asked President Biden, Merrick Garland and their advisors to do everything they can to stop seeking new federal and military death sentences, commute the existing death sentences under their jurisdiction, and to order the demolition of the federal death house at Terre Haute, Indiana,” said Rev. Sharon Risher, Chairwoman of the board of directors of Death Penalty Action, whose two cousins were among nine victims of a racist terrorist currently awaiting execution on federal death row. “President Biden promised to abolish the federal death penalty, but he can only do it if we can get this bill passed and on to his desk, so we need everyone to get involved to help make that happen.”

“We are honored to stand with Representative Pressley and Senator Durbin in this struggle for true justice by leading the coalition of hundreds of organizations in support of this important legislation,” said Abraham Bonowitz, Director of Death Penalty Action. “Our job is to reach the millions of people who also feel that government cannot be trusted with the power to kill, and invite them to ask their members of Congress to pass this bill.”

“The death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. Like the rest of the U.S. criminal legal system, it is rooted in racism dating back to slavery, Black codes, Jim Crow, and lynching, when the death penalty was used based on the race and status of people unrelated to the severity of the crime or harm done. The federal death penalty is broken beyond repair with pervasive and systemic issues such as racial bias, the sentencing and execution of people with severe mental and intellectual disabilities, and flawed legal representation. Congress must abolish the federal death penalty and this bill moves the USA closer towards ending this outdated practice once and for all,” said Justin Mazzola, Researcher at Amnesty International USA. 

“As Catholics who believe in the inviolability of human dignity, we understand that we can’t build a culture of life under a federal government that can put people to death,” said Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, Executive Director at Catholic Mobilizing Network. “We support the Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act, which would eradicate this flawed and morally bankrupt system, and open up the possibility for more healing forms of justice.”

Full text of the resolution is available here, and a summary is available here.

Rep. Pressley has been an outspoken advocate for abolishing the federal death penalty, and her legislation with Senator Durbin is informed by her People’s Justice Guarantee, a comprehensive, decarceration-focused resolution that outlines a framework for a fair, equitable and just legal system.

  • In January 2023, Rep. Pressley and Senator Durbin submitted a comment letter in response to a Department of Justice (DOJ) Request for Information (RFI) regarding the regulations governing federal executions.
  • In March 2022, Rep. Pressley issued a statement condemning the Supreme Court’s reinstatement of the death penalty in the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev case, urging passage of the Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act, and calling on President Biden to take executive action to halt federal executions, commute the sentences of those on death row, and more.
  • In May 2021, Rep. Pressley announced that the Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act now has the support of over 90 Members of Congress and 265 national and grassroots organizations across the country.
  • In January 2021, Congresswoman Pressley and Congresswoman Cori Bush (D-MO) led more than 35 of their House colleagues in sending a letter to President Biden calling on him to commute the sentences of every person on federal death row.
  • Later that month, Congresswoman Pressley and Reps. Adriano Espaillat (NY-13) and Robin Kelly (IL-02) wrote to then-Attorney General-nominee Judge Merrick B. Garland urging him to prioritize President Biden’s commitment to working with Congress to end the federal death penalty and incentivizing states to end capital punishment across the country.
  • In December 2020, Congresswoman Pressley led 41 of her House colleagues and three Representatives-Elect on a letter calling on President-Elect Joe Biden to end the use of the federal death penalty on his first day in office.
  • In November 2020, Congresswoman Pressley and Senator Durbin, along with Senators Patrick Leahy and Cory Booker, wrote to Attorney General Bill Barr calling for a halt on all scheduled federal executions during the presidential transition period.
  • In July 2019, Rep. Pressley and Senator Dick Durbin introduced bicameral legislation to prohibit the use of the death penalty at the federal level and require re-sentencing of those currently on death row. The legislation was reintroduced in 2021.

Along with Congresswoman Pressley, the Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act of 2023 is cosponsored by Representatives Becca Balint, Nanette Barragan, Earl Blumenauer, Suzanne Bonamici, Julia Brownley, Cori Bush, Troy Carter, Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, Yvette D. Clarke, Emanuel Cleaver, Gerald E. Connolly, Danny K. Davis, Madeleine Dean, Diana DeGette, Mark DeSaulnier, Dwight Evans, Maxwell Alejandro Frost, Robert Garcia, Jesús G. “Chuy” García, Jimmy Gomez, Jim Himes, Sheila Jackson Lee, Pramila Jayapal, Henry C. (“Hank”) Johnson, Jr., Ro Khanna, Barbara Lee, Summer Lee, Ted Lieu, Betty McCollum, James P. McGovern, Grace Meng, Kevin Mullin, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Glenn Ivey, Morgan McGarvey, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Frank Pallone, Chellie Pingree, Mark Pocan, Katie Porter, John Sarbanes, Jan Schakowsky, Bobby Scott, Abigail Spanberger, Haley Stevens, Bennie Thompson, Rashida Tlaib, Paul D. Tonko, David Trone, Nydia M. Velázquez, Bonnie Watson Coleman, Susan Wild, Nikema Williams, and Frederica S. Wilson.

Along with Senator Durbin, the bill is co-sponsored in the Senate by Senators Tim Kaine, Chris Coons, Chris Van Hollen, Brian Schatz, Tina Smith, Edward J. Markey, Dianne Feinstein, Peter Welch, Amy Klobuchar, Jeff Merkley, Bernie Sanders, Alex Padilla, Tammy Baldwin, Elizabeth Warren, Bob Casey, Sherrod Brown, Mazie Hirono, Raphael Warnock, Jon Ossoff, and Cory Booker.

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