The New York Times reported today that the Biden administration will not seek the death penalty in seven federal cases still to be tried or sentenced, reversing the Trump Department of Justice’s instructions to kill whenever possible.
Here is how the Times analyzed the decision:
The decision not to seek the death penalty in the cases comes amid the Biden administration’s broad rethinking of capital punishment — and could signal a move toward ending the practice at the federal level.
This is all well and good. It is in line with the administration’s prior actions: a formal moratorium on federal executions, as well as statements by the president himself that he is against capital punishment. And yet…there it stands. The death penalty fundamentally has not changed. All Merrick Garland and Joe Biden did was take their finger off the trigger of a gun still pointed at the heads of dozens of American citizens. When Biden leaves office, that weapon also changes hands.
So what are we doing here? Do we want the deaths to stop, or do we merely want our hands clean of them? Here is what public defenders and other advocates are saying, from the Times story:
“I don’t know where this is all going,” said Lisa Peebles, the federal public defender in Syracuse whose client, William D. Wood Jr., no longer faces a potential execution in the two restaurant murders. “But I’m hoping it’s heading in the direction of a moratorium and eventual abolishing of the death penalty,” she added.
She [a different lawyer] has yet to receive an answer even from the new administration, she said, but added, “I believe that we have a friendlier ear, given the language in the memorandum authored by the attorney general.”
This is all we’ve got. A “friendlier ear,” perhaps. “Heading in the direction of… eventual abolishing.”
There’s a good chance that my disgust here is politically naïve. Perhaps Biden is dragging his feet on anything more substantial because the issue is politically fraught. Perhaps internally he knows he does not have the votes in Congress to stake his reputation on a legislative push to overturn the federal death penalty permanently. That does not change the fact that allowing the state he serves at the head of to continue to kill its own people is evil.
There is no other word for it; there is no other way to feel about it. Joe Biden unquestionably has the power to attempt to change the United States government’s predilection towards murder. And as yet, he has not. He might be setting the gun down, but he’s leaving it on the table, and his hands will be just as dirty when the next guy comes along and pulls the trigger.