Rep. Ayanna Pressley Introduces Bill to Abolish Federal Death Penalty

July 26, 2019, 5:10 PM UTC
Ayanna Pressley
Photograph by Getty Images

Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley is introducing a bill to abolish the federal death penalty. The Massachusetts congresswoman is taking action after Attorney General William Barr on Thursday reversed a rule banning the use of capital punishment for the first time in 16 years.

“The death penalty has no place in a just society,” Pressley wrote on Twitter, along with a copy of the bill in its current form.

As stated in the legislation, “no person may be sentenced to death or put to death on or after the date of enactment of this act for any violation of federal law.” If enacted, it would also require anyone sentenced to death for a federal crime before the bill’s enactment to be re-sentenced.

Pressley referred to the death penalty as a “racist, vile policy,” and pointed to President Trump’s history of calling for the death penalty for the “Central Park Five,” five teenagers of color who were wrongfully convicted and later exonerated for the rape of a white woman in New York City in 1989.

“The same racist rhetoric coming from the occupant of the White House ― who called for the execution of the Exonerated 5, is what led to this racist, vile policy,” said Pressley. “It was wrong then and it’s wrong now. The cruelty is the point – this is by design.”

In 2014, then-President Barack Obama ordered the Department of Justice to conduct a review of the death penalty and the use of lethal injection drugs following a botched execution in Oklahoma. Then, Clayton Darrell Lockett, who was convicted of rape and kidnapping in 2000 suffered a heart attack during an execution by lethal injection.

The review has since been completed and the DOJ has said capital punishment can continue.

“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 a news release. “The Justice Department upholds the rule of law and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”

Twenty-one states have outlawed the use of capital punishment, as pressure has grown to replace the sentencing with life in prison. Civil rights advocates and prisoners alike have fought against state and federal executions, calling the practice inhumane.

According to data from the Death Penalty Information Center, more than 75% of people executed under the death penalty since 1977 were sentenced to death for the murder of a white victim, even though nearly half of all homicide victims in the U.S. are black.

“The death penalty is plagued by racial bias and geographic bias,” Cassandra Stubbs, director of the Capital Punishment Project at the American Civil Liberties Union told The New York Times. “Junk science has played an outsized role in who gets the death penalty and who does not.”

Three federal executions have taken place since 1988, the last of which took place in 2003. There are currently 62 prisoners on federal death row.

Pressley’s bill has received support from Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in addition to 11 other Democrats. The legislation also received support from former Republican Party member, Rep. Justin Amash.

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