U.S. lifts 16-year moratorium on death penalty

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca for as little as $5 per month!

Death row prison in Virginia. Image: Bill Dickinson/Flickr

On July 25, in a surprise announcement, U.S. Attorney General William Barr said that the federal government would be resuming executions, with five scheduled in the coming months. This overturns an effective moratorium on the federal death penalty that has lasted over 16 years.

"Punishment must be swift," Barr said.

Just a week later, U.S. President Donald Trump exploited the mass killings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, by demanding not an assault weapons ban, but that capital punishment "be delivered quickly, decisively and without years of needless delay." Needless delay? Since 1973, over 160 wrongfully convicted people have been freed from death row.

In fact, the death penalty is rapidly losing favour in the United States. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have banned executions, while four more states have formal moratoriums in place. Around the world, 106 countries have outlawed capital punishment, and another 28 either have moratoriums or don't carry out the death sentences. Trump's death penalty dictate is a tragic step backward.

"I'm not surprised that William Barr did this or the Trump administration wants to expedite federal executions," renowned anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean said on the Democracy Now! news hour. "It's their whole way of approaching everything: the way is through violence to try to solve social problems." Prejean is the Catholic nun who rose to global prominence in 1995 after her book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty was turned into an Oscar-winning film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.

In her new memoir, River of Fire, Prejean eloquently describes the path that led her from a life as a semi-cloistered young nun in New Orleans in the 1960s to become one of the world's most celebrated and effective campaigners against capital punishment. In it, she writes, "From years on the road talking with people in every state of this nation I realized that most folks have never reflected deeply about capital punishment and have almost no information about how the penalty actually works -- or doesn't work."

Prejean co-founded a group, Survive, that works with the families of murder victims. Bud Welch lost his daughter Julie in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, which killed 168 people. Timothy McVeigh was later executed for the crime. Welch said on Democracy Now!: "One cannot go through the healing process at all when you're living with revenge. And that's all the death penalty is, revenge. It is not a deterrent. It doesn't, as the media says, bring closure to family members."

The Death Penalty Information Center presents clear and compelling statistics on the 2,500 people currently on death row in the U.S., and how unjustly the death penalty is implemented. The most significant factors in determining whether or not a person is given the death penalty are the location where they are tried, whether they are poor, and the race of the victim. For example, over half of all death sentences are handed down in just two per cent of U.S. counties. Similarly, over 75 per cent of capital punishment cases involve murders where the victim was white. According to the DPIC, "In Louisiana, the odds of a death sentence were 97 per cent higher for those whose victim was white than for those whose victim was Black. Jurors in Washington state are three times more likely to recommend a death sentence for a Black defendant than for a white defendant in a similar case."

Not only is the death penalty administered in an unjust, biased way, but it is also irreversible. Death is final. Clifford Williams Jr. and Charles Ray Finch became the 165th and 166th death row prisoners to be exonerated. Each of these innocent African-American men spent over 40 years on death row. With the expedited execution schedule fancied by Trump and Barr, they would have been long dead.

Helen Prejean believes Trump and Barr "seem to have no understanding about how the courts work. They can claim all they want that they're going to fast-track this and speed up these executions, but there is the Constitution, and there are the appeals." While her focus remains on grassroots organizing, she also points to the importance of dedicated death penalty defence attorneys.

One such lawyer is Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. The group's Legacy Museum and the accompanying lynching memorial is deeply moving, documenting the 400-year history of African Americans, from enslavement to Jim Crow to the current crisis of mass incarceration.

Said Stevenson on Democracy Now!, "The death penalty is lynching's stepson."

Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,300 stations. She is the co-author, with Denis Moynihan, of The Silenced Majority, a New York Times bestseller. This column originally appeared on Democracy Now!

Image: Bill Dickinson/Flickr

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.