Biden’s Justice Department Remains Hardline on Death Row Case


CHICAGO (AP) — Rejon Taylor wanted Joe Biden, the first president of the United States, to win campaign with a pledge to abolish the death penalty, It means taking a more sympathetic look at his allegations that racial prejudice and other judicial errors landed him on federal death row in Terre Haute, Indiana.

But two years later, under Biden, Justice Department attorneys under Donald Trump responded to black efforts to overturn a 2008 death sentence for murdering a white restaurateur. fighting as hard as 13 executions in president’s last months.

“They are using all legal means to fight us,” said Kelly Henry, a 38-year-old attorney. “It’s business as usual.”

Opponents of the death penalty expect Biden to act within weeks of taking office to fulfill his 2020 election promise to abolish the death penalty at the federal level and to abolish it in states that still carry out executions. I expected to. Instead, Biden took no action to fulfill that promise.

But it’s not just Biden’s inaction. An Associated Press review of dozens of legal documents shows that even after Attorney General Merrick Garland, Biden’s Justice Department is fighting vigorously in court to keep the death row inmates’ sentences. increase. Paused executionLawyers for some of the more than 40 people on death row say they have seen no meaningful change in the Justice Department’s approach under Biden and Trump.

“They’re fighting back like never before,” said Ruth Friedman, head of the defense team overseeing federal death row cases. “When you say my client has an intellectual disability, the government… says ‘No, he doesn’t.’ I say ‘I want (new evidence)’ and they says, ‘You are not entitled to it’.”

Administrative Efforts to Uphold Death Sentences White supremacist Dylan Roof, The man who killed nine black churchgoers Boston Marathon Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Well known. Cases as unremarkable as Taylor’s have received less scrutiny.

Since Biden took office, the Justice Department has confirmed that it does not agree with a single allegation of racial bias or error that could lead to overturning federal death sentences.

It’s a thorny political issue. Americans are increasingly opposed to the death penalty, but it is deeply ingrained. Biden has his sights set on a 2024 run, but given his silence as president, it’s unlikely he’ll make the death penalty a major issue.

In announcing the 2021 moratorium, Garland noted concerns about the disproportionate impact of the death penalty on people of color and about “arbitrariness” or lack of consistency in its application. It has not approved a single new death penalty case and overturned decisions of the previous government in 27 cases.

Garland recently decided not to pursue death. Patrick Crusius Nearly 20 people died in a racist attack at a Walmart in Texas. His attorney said he had “severe, lifelong neurological and psychiatric disabilities.” He could still be sentenced to death on state charges.

Garland also dropped off the agenda the death penalty for a man accused of murdering 11 people as part of a drug lord.

Defense attorneys say it’s even more offensive that Garland’s department is fighting to uphold several death sentences. Sentenced to death, during which the guard died.

Prosecutors decide whether to seek the death penalty before trial, and all current death row inmates were tried under the previous administration. After the jury verdict, the prosecutor has less discretion than before the trial.

Post-trial court challenges are not about whether it was appropriate to pursue the death penalty, but whether there were legal or procedural issues at trial that made the judgment invalid.

Nathan Williams, the former Justice Department attorney who prosecuted Roof, took, “If a conviction is made and the jury speaks out, it’s a very different analysis.” “

A Justice Department spokesman said prosecutors “have an obligation to enforce the law, including defending jury verdicts lawfully obtained on appeal.” The department works to ensure “fair and impartial law enforcement in capital-eligible cases.”

Inmates’ attorneys dispute that prosecutors have no choice but to dig under their feet, saying there will always be multiple mechanisms for correcting past wrongs.

The judiciary announced this month that it would not seek the death penalty in a retrial. Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. Convicted of murdering North Dakota student Dollar Sjodin. But that only happened after a judge overruled the original death sentence.

Notably, in 2021, the department agreed with the attorneys of Wesley Coonce, who was sentenced to death for murdering a fellow inmate in a mental health ward, that a lower court would reconsider the intellectual disability issue in his case. said I need to. However, the Supreme Court disagreed and refused to hear his case or remand it to the lower courts.

Seven federal defendants still face the possibility of a death sentence.

of First federal death penalty case to be tried under Biden Ends this month. The jury is divided, meaning that the life of Saiflo his Saipov, who killed eight of him in a terrorist attack on a New York bike path, will be spared. Trump made the decision to seek death and Garland allowed the case to go ahead.

The Justice Department often consults with victims’ families, but Garland’s criteria for proceeding with some capital punishment cases are unclear. Some people do.

Inmate lawyers are asking for a fresh look at all criminal cases. Garland looks like a step in that direction.

The agency this year reinstated written guidance highlighting that staff can be proactive in correcting gross errors in fatal cases, but none have exercised that option. Garland has also reestablished a process by which defendants, under certain circumstances, can ask the Department to agree to bid for relief.

Taylor was charged with murdering restaurant owner Guy Lac in 2003. His attorney said the 18-year-old “fired in panic” when Luck tried to grab a gun inside the Tennessee van.

Prosecutors described Taylor to an almost entirely white jury as a “wolf” who was “obliged” to kill. The agent later said several jurors were determined to win Taylor, recalling: Let him go to his chair. “

An appeals court dismissed Taylor’s bias claim in 2016, but the dissenting judge said courts must be particularly diligent in preventing bias when the defendant is black and the victim is white. She also said Taylor doesn’t seem like the worst of the worst with a death sentence pending.

Taylor has reinstated bias claims, but the department has not directly addressed them.

With the 2024 election looming and someone unsympathetic to their cause potentially entering the Oval Office, inmates on death row know the clock is ticking.

“Trump ran out of time in the middle of the carnage,” Taylor told The Associated Press via the prison’s email system. If elected again, “I don’t think he will waste time continuing where he left off.”


Richer reported from Boston. Contributed by Washington Associated Press reporter Colleen Long.