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Group of Democratic lawmakers urge Biden to commute the sentences of death row prisoners

Posted January 22, 2021 8:04 p.m. EST

— Democratic Reps. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Cori Bush of Missouri on Friday led a group of 35 lawmakers in urging President Joe Biden to commute the sentences of all federal prisoners on death row.

In a letter sent Friday, the lawmakers urge Biden "to take swift, decisive action," saying that "commuting the death sentences of those on death row and ensuring that each person is provided with an adequate and unique re-sentencing process is a crucial first step in remedying this grave injustice."

"We look forward to working with your administration to enact just and restorative policies that will meaningfully transform our criminal legal system for the better. By exercising your clemency power, you can ensure that there would be no one left on death row to kill. Given the historic nature of your administration, this would be an unprecedented -- but necessary -- action to reverse systemic injustices and restore America's moral standing," according to the letter.

There are currently 49 people on federal death row, 21 of whom are White, 20 who are Black, seven who are Latino and one who is Asian.

A commutation is different from a pardon in that the prisoners would have their sentences reduced but would not be cleared of the charges or have to be released from prison. If Biden chose to take the lawmakers' advice, he could replace the death sentences with sentences of life in prison.

The three-page letter included co-signers Democratic Reps. Karen Bass of California, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ritchie Torres of New York.

It is the second letter Pressley has sent to Biden on the topic, pushing him to act quickly to end the federal death penalty. Her first letter, on December 15, came five days after the execution of Brandon Bernard, telling Biden that "with a stroke of a pen, you can stop all federal executions."

Pressley proposed legislation to eliminate capital punishment in July 2019, when then-Attorney General William Barr announced restarting federal executions. In the time since that bill was introduced, 13 men and a woman have been executed by the federal government, all in the last months of the Trump administration as the coronavirus pandemic raged.

"Congress is right: President Biden must go further than just not carrying out executions and should immediately commute all federal death sentences. When the Supreme Court, without any explanation, vacates lower court stays to allow the execution of a woman whose mental illness leaves her with no understanding of why she is being executed, we know the federal death penalty system is broken beyond repair," said Kelley Henry, attorney for Lisa Montgomery, who became the first woman federally executed in nearly 70 years on January 12.

Biden has previously said that ending the federal death penalty is on his list of plans for criminal justice, but he has yet to address the topic since he took office.

When asked on Wednesday whether there would be a moratorium on the federal death penalty, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said: "The President, as you know, has stated his opposition to the death penalty in the past. He remains -- that remains his view. I don't have anything more for you in terms of future actions or mechanisms, though."

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