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End the federal death penalty now

Executions of federal prisoners have resumed. They have to stop.

Representative Ayanna Pressley filed a bill last year to end the federal death penalty. Capital punishment, she has said, “has no place in our society and it has to end.”Associated Press

In 2015, the plea of Bill and Denise Richard — the parents of Martin Richard, the youngest victim of the Boston Marathon bombing — graced our front page.

“We know that the government has its reasons for seeking the death penalty,” they wrote, “but the continued pursuit of that punishment could bring years of appeals and prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives. We hope our two remaining children do not have to grow up with the lingering, painful reminder of what the defendant took from them, which years of appeals would undoubtedly bring.”

Their words were painfully prescient. Friday, that appeals process resulted in the death sentence of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev being thrown out, ensuring a protracted legal fight that will only extend and amplify the Richards’ already unthinkable pain.



This case, as well as the nationwide protests that have brought systemic racism in the criminal justice system to the fore of public consciousness, demonstrates how wrongheaded the Trump administration’s decision was to resume federal executions after they’d been halted for nearly two decades over credible concerns of racial injustice and constitutional violations. The administration stands on the wrong side of the moment, and lawmakers should put a stop to federal executions once and for all.

Last month, the first federal executions took place since 2003, when the Bush administration halted it. That moratorium stayed in place throughout the Obama administration, as the Justice Department and criminal justice experts wrestled not only with racial disparities but also with evidence that the lethal injection methods most often used were unconstitutionally cruel and unusual.

But now executions are back, and their return not only stands shockingly out of step with the current moment but also runs against the clear nationwide trend against capital punishment.


A Gallup poll in November found a record-high 60 percent of Americans prefer life without possibility of parole as a “better penalty for murder” than the death penalty. In the same poll, conducted in 1998, only 29 percent preferred life in prison to execution.

That shift in opinion is evident in states’ movement away from capital punishment — and it coincides with a growing body of evidence of racial inequities in death penalty sentences.

A recent analysis by the Death Penalty Information Center showed that even as the number of executions continues to decline in the country, shocking racial disparities persist. Nearly half of the nation’s murder victims are Black, though Black people make up about 13 percent of the population. Yet 73 percent of death penalty sentences stem from cases involving only white victims. And the majority of death row inmates are people of color.

Russ Feingold, the former US senator from Wisconsin who is now president of the American Constitution Society, said that by resuming federal executions, the Trump administration is flouting the will of a majority of states that have either outlawed capital punishment on a state level, or that have implicitly rejected it by declining to impose it in decades.

For example, no execution has taken place in Massachusetts since 1947, and the state’s death penalty law was struck down by the state’s highest court in 1984. Subsequent efforts to reinstate capital punishment have failed on Beacon Hill.

But those convicted of federal capital crimes in the state can be sentenced to death by federal juries. Two current inmates on federal death row — Tsarnaev and serial killer Gary Lee Sampson — were sent there by Bay State jurors. They are currently held in federal prisons in Colorado and Indiana, respectively.


Feingold said even those cases are examples of federal law defying the will of Massachusetts residents.

“It’s a violation of a decision that the state already made,” Feingold said. “The state of Massachusetts has taken a clear stance” that should not be overruled by a panel of jurists.

Representative Ayanna Pressley, who filed a bill to end the federal death penalty last year, said the issue has only become more urgent, noting that the only Native American on federal death row is scheduled to be executed in a matter of days.

“The injustice of the death penalty is so clear,” Pressley said. “It has no place in our society and it has to end.”

She’s right, and Pressley and her colleagues on Capitol Hill should end it now.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.