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WASHINGTON - Merrick Garland told a Senate committee weighing his confirmation as attorney general that he expected that a new moratorium would be declared on federal executions.
Garland said he harbored “great” concern about the application of the death penalty by the federal government, which dramatically resumed executions during the Trump administration.
Thirteen federal inmates were executed during the last months of Trump’s administration.
Garland said continuing exonerations of the wrongly convicted have given him “pause,” and he cited President Joe Biden’s strong opposition to capital punishment.
“A most terrible thing happens when someone is executed for a crime that they did not commit,” Garland said.
Dramatic resumption of federal executions
The federal government executed 10 people last year and three more in January, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
The number of federal death sentences carried out under Trump since 2020 is more than in the previous 56 years combined, reducing the number of prisoners on federal death row by nearly a quarter. It’s likely none of the around 50 remaining men will be executed anytime soon, with Biden signaling he’ll end federal executions.
Not since the waning days of Grover Cleveland’s presidency in the late 1800s has the U.S. government executed federal inmates during a presidential transition, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Cleveland’s was also the last presidency during which the number of civilians executed federally was in the double digits in one year, 1896, during Cleveland’s second term.
The annual report issued by the center in December 2020 found that the federal government dramatically revived its use of the death penalty after a 17-year hiatus. Among those executed was Lisa Montgomery, the first woman to be put to death by the U.S. in 67 years. She died on Jan. 13, and two others were executed within days of Biden's inauguration.
The Trump administration’s escalation of executions highlights longstanding inequalities in a criminal justice system that continues to disproportionately treat Black prisoners as the worst of the worst criminals, death penalty experts and advocates say.
As the nation reckons with the issue of race and criminal justice following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others at the hands of police, the Trump administration executed Black prisoners who alleged that their death sentences were made possible by racial bias and prosecutorial wrongdoing – issues that their attorneys said were never meaningfully explored before they received the ultimate punishment.
"Carrying out death sentences that are so clearly shaped by racial bias really ignores, and in some ways, offends the growing recognition on the part of the people in this country that the legal system has not been fair to people of minority race," said Robert Owen, who represented Brandon Bernard, executed on Dec. 10, 2020.
Contributing: Kristine Phillips, Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Merrick Garland: US death penalty moratorium likely to resume