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Federal government will resume death penalty in December

(Getty Images Photo/Win McNamee)

The federal government will resume capital punishment after nearly two decades, the Department of Justice announced Thursday.

Attorney General William Barr has directed the Acting Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons Hugh Hurwitz to schedule the executions of five death-row inmates, according to a press release.

“Congress has expressly authorized the death penalty through legislation adopted by the people’s representatives in both houses of Congress and signed by the president,” Barr said in the release.

“Under administrations of both parties, the Department of Justice has sought the death penalty against the worst criminals, including these five murderers, each of whom was convicted by a jury of his peers after a full and fair proceeding.”

U.S. Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona expressed support for the decision.

“Government has a solemn responsibility to administer justice for the most loathsome crimes, committed by some of our most hardened criminals. My thoughts and prayers are with the friends and families of the victims of these five horrific cases, who are forced to relive their nightmares every day,” the Gilbert Republican said in press release.

“I applaud Attorney General Barr for his staunch commitment to the rule of law and providing justice for these victims’ families.”

Legal expert Barry Markson told KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Arizona’s Morning News that this decision won’t affect states’ use of the death penalty.

“It has to be a federal crime, not a state crime, so you’re not generally going to see the guy who breaks into a house and shoots two people,” he said.

“You’re going to see the Timothy McVeighs, you’re going to see people who violate federal law.”

The death penalty remains legal in 30 states, but only a handful regularly conduct executions. Texas has executed 108 prisoners since 2010, far more than any other state.

The first of the five approved federal executions, for a white supremacist who killed a family of three, is scheduled for Dec. 9. It will be the first federal execution since 2003.

Two more are scheduled for December, with the remaining two in January 2020.

The execution scheduled for Dec. 11 has Arizona ties. Lezmond Mitchell stabbed a 63-year-old woman and 9-year-old girl on the Navajo Nation before dismembering and burying them.

In 2014, following a botched state execution in Oklahoma, President Barack Obama directed the DOJ to conduct a review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal injection drugs. That review resulted in what effectively was a freeze on executions.

That review has been completed and the executions can continue, the DOJ said.

The inmates will be killed using a single drug, pentobarbital, rather than a three-drug mix used in previous executions, according to the DOJ.

According to the release, more executions will be scheduled in the future.

There are 61 people on the federal death row, according to Death Row USA, a quarterly report of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Some of the highest-profile inmates on federal death row include Dylann Roof, who killed nine black church members during a Bible study session in 2015 at a South Carolina church, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who set off bombs near the Boston Marathon’s finish line in 2013, killing three people and wounding more than 260.

About 6 in 10 Americans favor the death penalty, according to the General Social Survey, a major trends survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago. While a majority continue to express support for the death penalty, the share has declined steadily since the 1990s, when nearly three-quarters were in favor.

Executions on the federal level have been rare. The government has put to death only three defendants since restoring the federal death penalty in 1988, the most recent of which occurred in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of a young female soldier.

Tuesday’s move is likely to stir up fresh interest in an issue that has largely lain dormant in recent years, adding a new front to the culture battles that President Donald Trump already is waging on matters such as abortion and immigration in the lead-up to the 2020 elections.

Most Democrats oppose capital punishment. Vice President Joe Biden this week shifted to call for the elimination of the federal death penalty after years of supporting it.

By contrast, Trump has spoken often – and sometimes wistfully – about capital punishment and his belief that executions serve as both an effective deterrent and appropriate punishment for some crimes, including mass shootings and the killings of police officers.

“I think they should very much bring the death penalty into vogue,” he said last year after 11 people were gunned down in a Pittsburgh synagogue.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

Arizona's Morning News

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