EDITORIAL: Deadly decisions: Biden should order review of federal execution policy

A group of 82 civil rights and advocacy groups have petitioned President Joe Biden to end federal executions. Reports suggest he might be receptive to the idea, and we hope he is.

Biden has expressed opposition to capital punishment and it is stated in the criminal justice reform section of his campaign website, although it was not a major issue during the presidential campaign. During that campaign President Trump ordered a wave of executions in which 13 federal inmates were put to death between July 14, 2020, and ending four days before Biden’s inauguration. Before that run, no federal executions had been conducted in 17 years.

Merrick Garland, Biden’s nominee for attorney general, also has spoken against about the death penalty. During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 22, Garland expressed concerns about wrongful convictions, racial disparity in sentencing and other issues. He also told the committee that he expects the president to give him some direction on the issue, and that it is “not at all unlikely” that the Justice Department will impose a formal moratorium on federal executions.

President Barack Obama issued such a moratorium in 2014. Even though no executions had taken place earlier during his administration, the moved was a reaction to a botched execution that year in Oklahoma.

Biden’s action would not end executions in the states, although 22 state legislatures have banned them and public support continues to shift toward reduction if not an outright ban on the practice. More people apparently are beginning to believe that the risks of executing the wrong person are two high.

More than 185 inmates have been exonerated or moved off death row since 1973 after exculpatory evidence has emerged, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Reviews have found that prosecutors have hidden evidence that might have proven suspects’ innocence, or at least cast doubts on their alleged crime. When such evidence is found, an inmate serving a life sentence can be released.

The death penalty, however, is irreversible. Moreover, those exonerations comprise about 10% of all capital convictions; when the result is the taking of a human life, a 10% error rate is unacceptable.

Even in Texas, which for years led the nation in the use of capital punishment, juries overwhelmingly have opted for life sentences without the possibility of parole instead of execution since the legislature gave them that option in 2005. The state, which has put 570 inmates to death since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1988, executed just three people in 2020.

Given the proven errors and misapplication of justice in many of those cases, halting federal executions would be a good start to a formal evaluation of capital punishment. If the system can’t be improved, perhaps it should be ended, as nearly have of our country’s state legislatures already have chosen to do.