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Joe Biden urged to commute sentences of all 49 federal death row prisoners

Edward Helmore in New York
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Bryan Woolston/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Bryan Woolston/Reuters

Led by two prominent African American congresswomen, 35 Democrats have urged Joe Biden to commute the sentences of all 49 federal prisoners left on death row – days after the Trump administration finished its rush to kill 13 such prisoners.

Related: 'This is not justice': supreme court liberals slam Trump's federal executions

Early last Saturday Dustin Higgs, 48, became the last of those prisoners to be killed, after Trump lifted a long-standing moratorium on federal executions. Biden entered the White House on Wednesday.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, of the 49 people still on federal death row, 21 are white, 20 are black, seven are Latino and one is Asian.

Among those prisoners is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, convicted of planting pressure-cooker bombs on the route of the Boston Marathon in April 2013, killing three and injuring 264. His death sentence was overturned last year, a decision that is now before the supreme court.

In a letter sent to Biden on Friday, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Cori Bush of Missouri led lawmakers in calling on Biden “to take swift, decisive action”.

“Commuting the death sentences of those on death row and ensuring that each person is provided with an adequate and unique re-sentencing process is a crucial first step in remedying this grave injustice,” they said.

The representatives said they looked forward to the new administration enacting “just and restorative policies that will meaningfully transform our criminal legal system for the better”.

Addressing Biden, they wrote: “By exercising your clemency power, you can ensure that there would be no one left on death row to kill.”

Such a gesture, they said, would be “an unprecedented – but necessary – action to reverse systemic injustices and restore America’s moral standing.”

Pressley has been consistently outspoken in her opposition to capital punishment. In July 2019, soon after Trump attorney general Bill Barr announced the lifting of a 16-year moratorium on federal executions, the Massachusetts Democrat proposed legislation to “prohibit the imposition of the death penalty for any violation of federal law, and for other purposes”.

“The death penalty has no place in a just society,” Pressley said then.

But by the time Trump left office, he had overseen the most executions by a US president in more than a century.

Among those supporting the new appeal is Kelley Henry, a supervising assistant federal public defender based in Nashville and an attorney for Lisa Montgomery, who on 12 January became the first woman killed by the US government in nearly 70 years.

“Congress is right,” Kelley told CNN on Friday. “President Biden must go further than just not carrying out executions and should immediately commute all federal death sentences.

“When the supreme court, without any explanation, vacates lower court stays to allow the execution of a woman whose mental illness leaves her with no understanding of why she is being executed, we know the federal death penalty system is broken beyond repair.”

Related: ‘A lifetime of torture’: the story of the woman Trump is rushing to execute

New White House press secretary Jen Psaki would not be drawn on specific plans to address the federal death penalty.

“The president, as you know, has stated his opposition to the death penalty in the past,” Psaki said. “That remains his view. I don’t have anything more for you in terms of future actions or mechanisms, though.”

Karen Bass of California, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York were among other well-known names to sign the letter to the new president.

Appealing to Biden in December, Pressley said: “With a stroke of a pen, you can stop all federal executions.”