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By Rev. Sharon Risher
Earlier this week in a tweet posted by Rev. Bernice King after she heard about the renewed effort to call on the federal government to end the death penalty, Dr. Martin Luther King’s daughter wrote, “I believe that [Protest] honors both of my parents. Most importantly, we need to abolish the death penalty.”
Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year coincides with the 45th anniversary of the first current-era execution, on January 17, 1977. There have now been 1540 executions in 45 years. Without a doubt, some of those killed were innocent, and many are like the two men lined up to be killed next in this country; Black, poor, mentally ill and intellectually challenged.
As Dr. King famously said, “Capital punishment is against the better judgment of modern criminology, and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God.”
Think about that statement. The death penalty is a pragmatic and moral failure. The only real question is: What must we do to end it?
Faith community must take a stand
I think it is especially important for the faith community to lead on this issue, with a passion for the kind of love and forgiveness that is expressed in every religion, not just Christianity. That’s why I’m calling on Americans who truly care about Dr. King’s legacy to help me send a clear message to the federal government. Executions must stop.
I am not speaking out of turn. My mother and cousins were among those murdered in the 2015 racist massacre by white supremacist Dylann Roof, the most notorious of the remaining prisoners on federal death row. I know the pain of that unexpected phone call. I know the struggle to find the right words. Last year I learned just how awful it still is, six years later, when just the first of what will be many appeals reopened the wound that can never be healed.
While its use is in decline, capital punishment still exists in law in 27 states, plus the military and the federal government. Because of the problems with lethal injections, we are now seeing a return to archaic forms of execution, including the firing squad, the electric chair and even the gas chamber. These shifts are the last gasp of a handful of states still clinging to the death penalty, but its popularity is waning, and I believe the end is in sight.
President Biden can and must do more
President Biden has acted on his campaign promise to end the federal death penalty, but not enough. We must help him to do more. In fairness, we must recognize the positive steps already taken.
After President Trump became the most-executing president in 70 years just in the final six months of his administration, we have not seen another federal execution. When the Attorney General was confronted on the issue during his confirmation hearing, challenged using my mother’s killer as the poster child for the death penalty, the President’s appointee explained that this administration opposes the death penalty and supports its abolition. In fact, the Department of Justice has now rescinded death notices in at least 12 in-process federal capital cases. That’s progress, but it’s not enough.
These are things the President has the power to do unilaterally, and he did so without causing a firestorm of opposition. Can and should he do more? Of course, and I will stand with him when he takes additional unilateral actions within his power.
President Biden can and must commute the sentences of those currently on federal and military death rows, and I say that knowing the killer of my mother is among them. President Biden can and must order a halt to any attempts to pursue death sentences or executions in current federal prosecutions, even for killers like the Boston Bomber.
Congress must pass the Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act
The President can and must follow the example of California’s Governor Gavin Newsome, who dismantled his state’s execution chamber as he announced that there would be no executions under his administration. I call on President Biden to demolish the federal execution chamber and the building it is housed in at FCI Terre Haute. Yes, bulldoze it. He can do that tomorrow, and he should.
What President Biden cannot do is unilaterally outlaw the death penalty. The courts have failed to recognize the unconstitutionality of the death penalty, so therefore it is on Congress to pass legislation the President can sign. President Biden must pledge to support and sign HR 262/SB 582, the Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act. With nearly 100 co-sponsors in the House and the Senate, this legislation will end the federal death penalty, and re-sentence those currently on federal and military death rows.
It is on all of us in the faith community to urge our members of Congress to get that legislation in front of the President for his signature. As Rev. Bernice King reminded us this week, “it is time to abolish the death penalty.” To that I add, “Demolish the Death House!”
Rev. Sharon Risher is a board member of Death Penalty Action, the organization leading the coalition effort of more than 300 organizations behind legislation sponsored by Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Senator Richard Durbin.