The United States Department of Justice has amended its rules on how the federal government can implement the death penalty. The changes empower courts to choose methods other than lethal injection, such as gassing, electrocution, and firing squads, depending on what is permitted in the state in which a sentence of death was handed down.
The Justice Department published the changes, which go into effect on December 24, in the Federal Register on Friday afternoon.
“The Federal Death Penalty Act provides that a capital sentence in a Federal case is to be implemented ‘in the manner prescribed by the law of the State in which the sentence is imposed.’ However, if the ‘law of the State in which the sentence is imposed’ ‘does not provide for implementation of a sentence of death,’ then the statute directs the court to designate another State whose law does ‘provide for the implementation of a sentence of death, and the sentence shall be implemented in the latter State in the manner prescribed by such law,'” Deputy Attorney General Laurence Rothenberg wrote.
The updated policy reflects the Trump Administration’s thirst for state-sanctioned killings, which have accelerated under Attorney General William Barr.
“Barr restarted federal executions this year after a 17-year hiatus,” AP wrote. “This year, the Justice Department has put to death more people than during the previous half-century, despite waning public support from both Democrats and Republicans for its use.”
Last week, a spokesperson for President-Elect Joe Biden told AP that Biden “opposes the death penalty now and in the future.” What remains unclear is whether federal executions will be halted when Biden takes office.
The United States is one of only 54 countries that still sentences its citizens to death. Since 2019, 22 people have been put to death in the US – making it the only nation in the Americas to employ legal means of executing its own citizens.
Lethal injection is legal in each of the 22 states which still allow capital punishment, however, in some states it is merely the preferred method, rather than the only one.
But because the drugs used in lethal injections are controversial, and are therefore difficult to obtain, some states have turned to other potential means of putting people to death.
“Alabama joined Oklahoma and Mississippi in 2018 approving the use of nitrogen gas to execute prisoners, allowing the state to asphyxiate condemned inmates with the gas in some cases,” AP noted.
“In some states, inmates can choose the method of their execution,” AP continued. “In Florida, for example, an inmate can specifically ask to be put to death by electrocution and in Washington state, inmates can ask to be put to death by hanging. In Utah, prisoners sentenced before May 2004 can choose to be killed by a firing squad. The state law there also authorizes the use of a firing squad if lethal injection drugs aren’t available.”
Five federal inmates are scheduled to be executed during President Donald Trump’s final weeks in office.
One unnamed Justice Department official told AP on Friday that two of the executions will be carried out using lethal injection. The individual did not specify how the other three death sentences would be implemented.
The official added that the Justice Department “will never execute an inmate by firing squad or electrocution unless the relevant state has itself authorized that method of execution.”
In other words, Trump’s DOJ is open to expanding the ways it can kill more people, because of “states’ rights.”
Rothenberg even noted in his release that DOJ is not interested in objections that were raised about possible cruel and unusual executions.
“One commenter argued that the rule should specify the guidelines that the Department would follow to ensure the humane implementation of a sentence and gave several examples of procedures for lethal injection that the commenter argued should be delineated in the regulations, as well as how a prisoner’s medical conditions would be accommodated. A second commenter argued that the language of the preamble of the proposed rule inappropriately referred to authorizing any method under Federal law while the statute refers to requiring use of any method authorized by State law,” the report states. “The Department declines to make changes to the proposed rule in response to these comments.”
Fifty-four days until the inauguration.
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Brandon is a political writer for the Hill Reporter specializing in current events, breaking news, and scientific discovery. Brandon holds a Bachelor of Music degree from Indiana University. He lives in New York City.