Appeals Court Opens the Door for Administration to Implement New Federal Death Penalty Protocol
On April 7, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of the Trump administration’s plan to resume federal death sentences using a new injection protocol. While this particular case was returned to the lower court to resolve several remaining legal questions, the decision has allowed for all federal executions to resume and sent a message to courts all over the country regarding the ability for the federal government to dictate the method of execution.
Under the previous administration, federal executions had been halted as of 2003 in part due to a shortage of the three lethal injection drugs used in the process. However, in July, Attorney General William Barr announced that executions would occur through use of the single drug known as pentobarbital sodium. As of July of 2019, there were approximately 60 people on federal death row, with Attorney General Barr’s directive calling for the executions of five inmates to take place immediately. Still, most capital sentences and executions occur at the state level, although 21 states and Washington DC have all abolished the death penalty, including New York and New Jersey. For those facing federal executions, serious questions remain as to the fairness and reliability of some of these convictions and sentences.
Lower Court Finds That It Is Up to The States
As a result of Barr’s announcement, several inmates on death row filed a lawsuit (Roane v. Barr), arguing that the federal government violated the Federal Death Penalty Act by dictating what the new method of execution would be because it is the duty of the state where the capital crime was committed to determine the method of execution. The lower court sided with the death row inmates in finding that the government had violated its authority by dictating that executions be conducted using the single uniform method rather than leaving it up to the state. The Federal Death Penalty Act, 18 U.S.C. §3596(a) dictates that “implementation of the sentence [shall be] in the manner prescribed by the law of the State in which the sentence is imposed. If the law of the State does not provide for implementation of a sentence of death, the court shall designate another State…”
Trump Appointees Reverse
However, the federal appeals court lifted the injunction put in place by the lower court, finding that the plan was allowed under federal law because the statute referred to broad choices such as lethal injection versus gas, electrocution, hanging, etc. as opposed to which types of drugs are used for lethal injection, specifically.
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