The federal government has ordered the death penalty to be reinstated for the first time in nearly two decades, as Attorney General William Barr directed the Bureau of Prisons to schedule the execution of five inmates after adopting an updated execution protocol.
After 16 years without an execution, Barr has directed the head of the Bureau of Prisons to execute “five death-row inmates convicted of murdering, and in some cases torturing and raping, the most vulnerable in our society — children and the elderly” in December and January, according to a statement from the Department of Justice.
In his statement, Barr said the government was moving to seek justice against the “worst criminals” and bring relief to victims and family members. At the same time, however, the government’s move is likely to reignite legal challenges to the specific protocol and reinvigorate a debate concerning the constitutionality of lethal injection.
The move represents a dramatic reversal after more than a decade-long hiatus in the federal use of capital punishment, as President Donald Trump has taken on the issue and called to “bring back the death penalty.” The death penalty is legal in 29 states and the federal government, though there have been no federal executions in nearly two decades and the number of people facing state executions has been on the decline.
The debate over capital punishment has been longstanding, with advocates arguing it’s a deterrent against serious crime and that justice is served for the victims or victims’ families. Opponents, however, point to the racial disparities of death row inmates, the financial costs, and wrongful convictions.
At Barr’s direction, the Bureau of Prisons has adopted the Federal Execution Protocol Addendum which “replaces the three-drug procedure previously used in federal executions with a single drug—pentobarbital,” the Justice Department announced.
Thursday’s announcement by DOJ to schedule the executions of five death row inmates follows an effort begun by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions for the federal government to restart executions by lethal injection.
Sessions had asked the Bureau of Prisons to determine a way to proceed.
The directive from Sessions for the Bureau of Prisons to determine a way to resume the use of the death penalty was recently concluded after a thorough legal and procedura