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Federal executions to resume, despite falling public support for death penalty

Attorney General William Barr has announced that the federal government will resume enforcement of the death penalty. No federal executions have occurred since 2003, in the face of increasing litigation over the constitutionality of the punishment. Amna Nawaz talks to The Washington Post’s Devlin Barrett about the lethal drugs involved, declining public support and ongoing legal challenges.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Attorney General William Barr announced today that the federal government will resume enforcing the death penalty.

    As Amna Nawaz reports, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons has not executed anyone since 2003.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right, Judy.

    The Department of Justice said today executions can continue because the department has completed a review of the lethal injection drugs used in the procedure.

    The Washington Post's Devlin Barrett is here now to break down this policy shift.

    Welcome to the "NewsHour," Devlin.

  • Devlin Barrett:

    Hi. Thanks for having me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So let's talk about the timing first.

    What it is that prompted this rule change right now?

  • Devlin Barrett:

    Well, the Trump administration has generally been supportive of the death penalty.

    Jeff Sessions, the previous attorney general, talked about how he wanted more death cases brought. They were always headed here. And I think, frankly, what they have come up with is, they think they have come up with a chemical formula really around the biggest logistical hurdle to executing people, which has been this legal debate and, frankly, policy and political debate, over what drugs to use and where to get those drugs.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    When you say they have come up with a chemical formula, what does that mean? What's the answer they're proposing here?

  • Devlin Barrett:

    So, for many years, the way people were executed in this country for the most part was a three-drug cocktail.

    Death penalty opponents for a long time kept building pressure on not just the states that applied those drugs, but the companies that provided those drugs to the states. And that began to choke off the supply for some places for those drugs.

    What the federal government now says it's going to do is use a single drug that it says it has the ability to obtain and doesn't have a resource problem and use that drug alone. And they think they have essentially solved the logistical and, frankly, the legal and policy hurdle that that created before.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, with this new rule, how many people are actually affected by it right now and potentially in the future?

  • Devlin Barrett:

    Right.

    So the federal death row is in Indiana. There's about 60 people on that death row. The federal death penalty is much different than the state-by-state death penalty. However, the federal death penalty hasn't really been applied in 16 years.

    And when it is applied, it's applied infrequently. So — so, what they have done today is, they have said, the following five people are — now have execution dates. Those execution dates are in December in January.

    But, realistically, there should be a lot of litigation, a lot of arguments to the court trying to delay those dates.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And those five people, we should note, have all exhausted their legal appeals, right? They're all five men, all convicted, we should also note of heinous crimes, right?

  • Devlin Barrett:

    Absolutely.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    One killed a family of three, including a young girl. Another molested and beat to death his 2-year-old daughter.

    But you mentioned the difference between the federal and the state executions. We haven't had a federal execution since 2003. State executions have continued. But what's the trend we have seen there?

  • Devlin Barrett:

    Well, the trend is fewer and fewer executions.

    So take 20 years ago. Twenty years ago, there were just about 100 executions in — by various states around the country. This last year, there were 25. So you have seen a significant shrinking.

    There's 21 states that have taken the death penalty off their law books. There's another group of states who have the death penalty on their law books, but aren't actually really executing many people. The biggest example of that would be California, where there's something on the order of 700 people on death row, and they haven't executed anyone in over 10 years.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's worth noting that decline in the state executions, that mirrors public opinion, right?

  • Devlin Barrett:

    It really does.

    Like, the height of support, public support, for the death penalty, not surprisingly, came in the early '90s, when the crime rate in this country was much higher. As the crime rate has gone down, frankly, this has become a less popular criminal justice solution.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And just to punch home that trend, take a look at these numbers right here from the Pew Research Center. This shows public support for the death penalty back in 1996, 78 percent of Americans favored it.

  • Devlin Barrett:

    Right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That has dropped down to 54 percent, still the majority of Americans, but a significant decline.

  • Devlin Barrett:

    And there's an interesting political split in where it now stands.

    Now you see most Republicans favor the death penalty. Most Democrats don't. When this policy change was announced this morning, most of the Democrats running for president immediately criticized it and said they oppose the death penalty.

    Ten, 20 years ago, Democrats were much more split on the question of the death penalty. They're a little more cohesive now in their opposition to it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And we're already starting to see some of the political opposition bubble up from Democratic members of Congress.

    But when it comes to public opinion, when it comes to legal challenges, what do we expect to happen now? The rule change is out there. Is there going to be a legal challenge to this as well?

  • Devlin Barrett:

    Yes.

    I mean, there's there's constant legal challenges to executions, both sort of as a policy and in the specific cases. We will see more of those. The ACLU has said it plans to challenge this. Certainly, the lawyers for the five people who've been given execution dates, I have no doubt that they will challenge this.

    So we will see a lot more activity on this front. But, remember, death penalty cases are always being brought up through the courts. The Supreme Court faces these types of decisions, at least on individual cases, all the time.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Is it fair to say it's going to have a big impact, or we just don't know what's going to happen yet?

  • Devlin Barrett:

    I think we don't know.

    I think what's interesting is whether the federal government's action here might push some of the states into getting more active on the death penalty, because, clearly, the administration has a policy goal here.

    And other states have felt — have had the same policy goal, and they have sort of lost those fights. It'll be interesting to see if any states actually follow the federal government's example here.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We will be tracking it, and so will you.

    Devlin Barrett of The Washington Post, thanks for being here.

  • Devlin Barrett:

    Thanks for having me.

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