Death Penalty

Judge Puts Plans to Restart Federal Executions on Hold

The first death was scheduled for December.


Attorney General William Barr's plans for the first federal executions in more than 15 years have been temporarily suspended, thanks to a conflict over the methods the Justice Department intends to use.

In July, Barr announced that the Justice Department would get back in the execution business. Though the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1998, there have been no federal executions since 2003.

Barr had scheduled five executions for December and January, each for men convicted of murder. When he announced his plan, the Justice Department said it would be performing lethal injections with pentobarbital, a drug that has been a focus of some criticism because of some botched executions.

But he Federal Death Penalty Act requires that executions be carried out in "the manner prescribed by the laws of the State within which the sentence is imposed." The only exception is if that state does not currently have an execution protocol. In such a case, the Justice Department is to pick another state's execution method to mimic.

Four of the five men scheduled to be executed have filed suit, arguing that the Justice Department is not following the law by deciding to use pentobarbital rather than the home state's protocols. Daniel Lewis Lee, the first man scheduled for execution (despite opposition from the family of his victims), was convicted and sentenced to death in Arkansas, which uses a three-drug execution combination that has its own problems and faces its own legal challenges.

Yesterday evening, Judge Tanya S. Chukatan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled on behalf of the men on death row. She has temporarily enjoined the Justice Department from carrying out the executions as planned, noting that "the public is not served by short-circuiting legitimate judicial process, and is greatly served by attempting to ensure that the most serious punishment is imposed lawfully."

This is a technical ruling that will not ultimately prevent the Justice Department from eventually resuming executions. But because this ruling is about the protocols themselves, conflict about how the states execute prisoners and what drugs they use may create unexpected logistical challenges for the executioners. States such as Arkansas are facing legal challenges arguing that drugs they use to execute prisoners violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishment." Drug companies are increasingly reluctant to supply these drugs for this purpose (unless the states keep their drug sources secret, as Arkansas and Missouri have done). Forcing the Justice Department to follow other states' protocols may not be as simple as switching to the "right" drug.

Read the ruling for yourself here.

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  1. Time to rethink hangings.

    1. If you insist on looking to the past, hangings are actually difficult to do right (unless you are going for the slow death by strangulation), on the other hand the guillotine is about as fast and painless as it gets.

      But why look to the past. It is easier to destroy than to create, there are so many creative ways to kill people that we haven’t tried yet.

      I vote for vacuum chambers.

      1. It depends on how “right” you want. If you just want a reliable quick death, you make the drop long enough and it’s certain. If you’re trying to hit that sweet spot where their neck breaks, but the head won’t be torn off, then it gets tricky, because of individual variation.

        Both hanging and the guillotine rely on the person being paralyzed by their spinal cord being severed, so that, while they don’t actually die instantly, it’s not obvious to onlookers. In both cases, the person actually dies due to the blood supply to the brain being cut off, and this takes a bit of time.

        Personally, I’d favor inert gas suffocation: As accidents have demonstrated, it’s remarkably fast and painless, and there’s fat chance that a judge is going to cut off the state’s supply of Nitrogen. You’re just breathing along, and when the air is replaced by inert gas, your lungs efficiently purge your blood of oxygen, and in a couple breaths you lose consciousness. Then autonomic mechanisms keep you breathing in an effort to replace that oxygen, until everything shuts down.

  2. thanks to a conflict over the methods the Justice Department intends to use.

    Death by bureaucracy ran into some 8th Amendment issues.

  3. Who performs federal executions?

    Why, the esteemed US Marshalls.

    1. I wouldn’t call my Marshalls esteemed, but I got a nice shirt there.

  4. awful. psychopaths can’t decide which power to yield in my name.

    1. I think the majority of federal prisoners on death row could simply be turned over to the states where they committed their offense. The federal charges were only peripheral to that – kidnapping over state lines or some other interstate offense. Where the federal charges were not peripheral – ie the murder occurred on federal land or somesuch – well I can see the capital punishment argument rage on either way.

      But 12 of the 62 are on death row now solely because they weren’t eliminated before. ie they killed another prisoner or a guard or killed someone after escaping from a federal prison. And another half-dozen or so killed witnesses to a different crime so their offense is truly a fundamental assault against holding anyone accountable for anything via a court system.

      IDK how those are anything but very difficult decisions where there is a huge potential cost either way.

  5. I asked my state legislator once why the state couldn’t use a firing squad. “We can’t use violence”, he said. Seems kind of strange. I would think that killing someone is the definition of violence.

    1. No; in a lot of cases, it is a ‘choice’.

  6. Wouldn’t it be simplest to just transfer them to a state where you can impose the sentence using pentobarbital because that’s what the state itself does?

    I’m assuming they’re sentenced to death, not death in a particular state, since it’s a federal crime. Doesn’t the federal government have some discretion about where to do the deed?

  7. “Judge Puts Plans to Restart Federal Executions on Hold”

    The real issue here is whether you want to give the state the legal a right / ability to kill people

    There is no reason that the death penalty could not be extended for jay-walking.

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