Biden Can Still Keep His Promise of Doing Away with the Death Penalty
Campaign promises usually have all of the sincerity of a stripper’s smile. One is a lie to get your vote. The other is a lie to get your cash. Other than that, they are remarkably akin. You pretend to believe the lie, if only for a moment, for a quick dopamine rush.
During his campaign against Donald Trump, Biden promised “to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example.” Did he mean it? Or was he just saying what he knew voters wanted to hear?
The Supreme Court just gave him the chance to show us. He has a choice; spearhead the issue or flounder under the pressure. The Boston Marathon bomber was sentenced to death in 2015 in federal district court by former President Obama’s Department of Justice (DOJ).
Last year, in July of 2020, the First Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the bomber’s death sentence and sent the case back to the district court for resentencing. The Trump DOJ appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal on March 19 of this year. The sole issue is whether or not the defendant’s lawyers should have been allowed to ask prospective jurors certain questions. The district judge did not allow the questions. The circuit court said they should have been allowed.
The best case scenario for the defendant is for the Supreme Court to uphold the circuit court. The bomber would be granted an additional sentencing hearing where the death penalty may not be considered. He could narrowly escape the death penalty, but there is no conceivable way he could get out of a lengthy prison sentence.
So, what would Biden have to do to keep his campaign promise to end the federal execution of prisoners? His DOJ could just simply accept the circuit court’s opinion in United States v. Tsarnaev and drop Trump’s appeal to the Supreme Court. Or, his DOJ could just stop seeking to execute federal prisoners, which is not a hard task considering prior to Trump and 2020 no one was executed by the federal government for 17 years.
Prosecutors have discretion. Your local elected district attorney has the discretion to decide which cases to take, what charges to pursue, and what penalty to seek. The same is true at the federal level, and the president oversees the DOJ. It is entirely within Biden’s discretion to set a policy that the DOJ will not use its limited resources to seek the death penalty or perform executions.
Congressional action is not necessary to stop any federal execution, therefore Biden can not blame Congress in an effort to avoid responsibility in the case of the Boston bomber. His DOJ makes the call on how to proceed. Biden can use his constitutional authority to commute the sentence of every current death row inmate to life in prison without parole. For a permanent change, congressional action, in the form of repealing the death penalty, would be necessary
It’s not too late for Biden to keep his promise.
Limited government conservatives should encourage him to do so. There is no bigger government power than the authority to execute people.
The concept that some people “deserve” to die is a philosophical one worth debate. But the belief that the state can adequately decide who lives and who dies shows a faith in the state that undermines the foundations of a limited government.
Biden is no proponent of limited government, but we shouldn’t take it for granted when his policy aims align just so. It would be all too easy for Biden to instruct his DOJ to abide by the decision of the First Circuit and withdraw the appeal filed by the previous administration. The icing on the cake would be for him to announce his administration, as promised, will no longer seek the death penalty or perform executions of those already on death row.
This is Biden’s chance to show us he is a man of his word, a rare trait for a president.