Attorney General William Barr reinstates the federal death penalty

Barr's decision marks the end of a 16-year pause in federal executions

By Matthew Rozsa
Published July 25, 2019 2:45PM (EDT)
U.S. Attorney General William Barr (AP/Vadim Ghirda)
U.S. Attorney General William Barr (AP/Vadim Ghirda)

Attorney General William Barr announced on Thursday that he is reinstating the federal death penalty.

"Congress has expressly authorized the death penalty through legislation adopted by the people’s representatives in both houses of Congress and signed by the president," Barr said in a statement posted on the Department of Justice website.

“Under administrations of both parties, the Department of Justice has sought the death penalty against the worst criminals, including these five murderers, each of whom was convicted by a jury of his peers after a full and fair proceeding. The Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system."

The Justice Department listed five individuals who are scheduled for federal execution in either December or January: Daniel Lewis Lee, a white supremacist who murdered a family of three, including their eight-year-old daughter; Lezmond Mitchell, who murdered a 63-year-old woman and her nine-year-old daughter; Wesley Ira Purkey, who bludgeoned an 80-year-old woman to death and raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl; Alfred Bourgeois, who tortured, molested and murdered his two-and-a-half year old daughter; and Dustin Lee Honken, who shot and murdered five people, including a ten-year-old girl and a six-year-old girl.

"Each of these inmates has exhausted their appellate and post-conviction remedies, and currently no legal impediments prevent their executions, which will take place at U.S. Penitentiary Terre Haute, Indiana. Additional executions will be scheduled at a later date," the Department of Justice said on its website.

There are 62 people on federal death row, with the most notorious including Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof and Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Barr's decision marks the end of a 16-year pause in federal executions, according to NBC News. The last federal execution to occur was that of Louis Jones Jr., who was put to death for the rape and murder of a 19-year-old female soldier.

This is not the first time the Justice Department under President Donald Trump has adopted a more hard-line stance on the issue of capital punishment. Last year, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a controversial memo to federal prosecutors instructing them to pursue the death penalty against certain types of drug dealers.

The memo argued that "in the face of all of this death, we cannot continue with business as usual" and added that "drug traffickers, transnational criminal organizations and violent street gangs all contribute substantially to this scourge. To combat this deadly epidemic, federal prosecutors must consider every lawful tool at their disposal."

Sessions' attitude was foreshadowed by Trump, who in the past has called for the death penalty for certain types of drug dealers.

"If we don't get tough on the drug dealers, we are wasting our time," Trump said at a political rally in New Hampshire last year.

He added, "The best way to beat the drug crisis is to keep people from getting hooked in the first place. This has been something I have been strongly in favor of — spending a lot of money on great commercials showing how bad it is."

Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

MORE FROM Matthew Rozsa

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

All Salon Death Penalty Donald Trump News & Politics Politics Trump Trump Administration William Barr