|President Barack Obama meets with Attorney General Loretta Lynch in the|
Oval Office, April 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
A botched execution in Oklahoma brought national attention to the issue, public opinion polls began to shift and President Obama, declaring that it was time to "ask ourselves some difficult and profound questions," directed Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to review capital punishment.
At the Justice Department, a proposal soon began to take shape among Mr. 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, the officials reasoned, and would bolster the legal argument that the death penalty is unconstitutionally cruel punishment.
But the idea never gained traction, and Mr. Obama has seldom mentioned the death penalty review since. Now, as the Supreme Court considered arguments Wednesday over whether lethal injection, as currently administered, was unconstitutional, the obstacles the Obama administration faced provide vivid examples of just how politically difficult the debate remains.
"It was a step in the right direction, but not enough of a step," said Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a Harvard professor and a death penalty opponent who met with administration officials as part of the review. The Justice Department, he added, has been refusing to say what he thinks senior officials there believe: "We've had too many executions that didn't work and killing somebody's not the answer."
In remarks last May after a prisoner in Oklahoma regained consciousness and writhed and moaned during a lethal injection, Mr. Obama, who has supported the death penalty, seemed to raise expectations for a policy change. He lamented its racial disparities and the risk of executing innocent people. He referred the matter to Mr. Holder, a liberal stalwart who opposed capital punishment. But privately the White House was cautious, sending word to the Justice Department to keep its focus narrow, administration officials said.
Mr. Obama called for the review at a time when there had not been a federal execution since 2003, when Louis Jones Jr. was killed for raping and murdering a 19-year-old female soldier. Since 2010, the federal government has effectively had a moratorium on executions - all are carried out by lethal injection - because manufacturers in Europe and the United States refused to sell the government the barbiturates used to render prisoners unconscious. States, however, found alternatives, including the sedative midazolam, which was used in the gruesome execution of Clayton D. Lockett in Oklahoma last year.
As the Justice Department 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.
"From my view, we're better off with things bubbling up in the states," said Henderson Hill, the executive director of the Eighth Amendment Project and one of several people consulted by the administration last year. "I've never been all that enthusiastic about the executive branch's role." While 32 states allow the death penalty, many have their own moratoriums on executions and the number of people put to death is declining.
Advocates in particular worried that having Mr. Obama and Mr. Holder as the faces of the anti-death penalty movement would stoke conservative support for capital punishment at a time when some libertarian-minded Republicans, Christian conservatives and liberal Democrats appeared to be finding common ground in opposition to it.
"I'm not sure that what the administration would have to say would be inherently influential in Nebraska," Mr. Hill said. Opposition to the death penalty was growing in Nebraska last year and lawmakers voted overwhelmingly this month to replace it with life in prison, setting up a veto fight with Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican.
Advocates were further worried that if lethal injections were eliminated, states would bring back older methods of execution, a concern borne out in Utah, where officials said they would bring back firing squads if lethal drugs were not available. Other states are reviving plans to use the electric chair or gas chambers.
Inside the Justice Department, 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. Others worried that eliminating the death penalty would make it harder to persuade Congress to move terrorist suspects from the island prison at Guantanamo Bay to the United States for trial.
There were also logistical hurdles. Advocates and administration officials asked what would happen to the roughly 5 dozen people on federal death row. Would Mr. Obama, who has said the death penalty was appropriate in some cases, commute the sentences of men who raped and murdered people? There were no clear answers.
In the end, the question never made it to Mr. Obama's desk. Last fall, Mr. 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. In January, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of 3 convicted murderers who challenged the lethal injection drugs. Now with the issue before the justices, the review at the Justice Department has come to a halt because any administration action could be seen as trying to influence the court.
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." But she did not elaborate. Emily Pierce, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said the review continued. "And we have, in effect, a moratorium in place on federal executions in the meantime."
Some advocates, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss conversations that were confidential, said they urged the Justice Department to focus on exposing racial inequities, problems with legal representation and the costs of capital punishment. Officials said that was likely to happen, regardless of what happens at the Supreme Court.
"We keep having these moments where we're very close," Mr. Ogletree said.
He said that the focus had simply moved to the Supreme Court, where he held out hope that Justice Anthony M. Kennedy would side with the more liberal members of the court and declare the lethal drugs unconstitutional.
Source: New York Times, April 30, 2015
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