Add this to the long list of life-and-death concerns that will be inherited by president-elect Joe Biden: Capital punishment.
The issue has been amplified by President Donald Trump, whose administration authorized the executions of 13 prisoners—all since July. In a span of seven months, the Trump administration has presided over the largest number of federal executions in one year since 1896, when 16 inmates were executed under President Grover Cleveland.
“They’ve been working extra hard and fast to carry out executions,” said Dan Urman, a Northeastern professor who teaches human rights, criminal justice, and the American legal system and the U.S. Supreme Court. “It’s a dark, bizarro version of ‘use it or lose it.’ They know the next administration is about to take over.”
Now, Biden’s inauguration will likely bring a different approach to an incendiary political issue. In polls, a majority of Republicans favor the death penalty, while a majority of Democrats oppose it. Support overall for capital punishment in the U.S. has been waning since 1994, when 80 percent of Americans favored it. A recent Gallup poll showed 55 percent support for the policy, amounting to a 42-year low.
Trump is the first president in 130 years to authorize an execution during the lame-duck period following the election of a successor: Six inmates have been executed since November, five of them Black men.
Proponents of the death penalty say it is morally justified in some extreme cases of murder. “We owe it to the victims of these horrific crimes, and to the families left behind, to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” said Attorney General William Barr while announcing the resumption of federal executions in June.
But opponents say the death penalty doesn’t align with American values. Daniel Medwed, university distinguished professor of law and criminal justice at Northeastern, said he opposes capital punishment based on many factors, including his personal belief that jurors should not face an “unfair burden” of sentencing a defendant to death. “It’s been a race against the clock to basically kill people,” Medwed said of the Trump administration’s death penalty strategy.