Fifty-two. That’s how many people await execution—people who are being legally tortured by a federal government and a broken criminal-legal system that shouldn’t have the power to force death on any human being.
There is no place for the death penalty in a just, humane society.
On December 10, at 9:27 p.m., Brandon Bernard became one of the latest casualties of this state-sanctioned murder. Like many of you, I waited to see if the Supreme Court of the United States or President Trump would intervene to prevent yet another needless tragedy. They did not. Because the cruelty of this system is the very point.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Under the Constitution, Presidents have the extraordinary power to shorten sentences and erase convictions altogether. It’s this same authority that Joe Biden should use when he becomes President on January 20. With the stroke of a pen, he can grant clemency to all who are on federal death row, reducing their sentences or pardoning them altogether.
For 17 years, federal executions were halted by previous administrations. For 17 years, not one life was taken. But for 17 years, families of those on death row fearfully waited for the moment that has come. In July 2019, the Trump Administration suddenly ended the moratorium on executions—rushing to take 13 lives before leaving office.
Joe Biden cannot leave the lives of those on death row in the hands of future presidents. If he truly opposes the death penalty, he must do everything in his power to stop it for good. Granting clemency to all on federal death row is his most effective tool.
The fact of the matter is that these death sentences aren’t about justice. They’re about who has institutional power and who doesn’t. In January, I will begin representing Missouri’s 1st District, and that’s the kind of power my community has been historically denied. Our neighborhoods are too often subjected to structural violence at the hands of the government: police violence, immigration violence, prison violence, the death penalty and poverty. Black and brown people in communities like mine, when arrested are more likely to be convicted and receive harsher sentences than our white counterparts. A justice system that actually hands out justice isn’t as cruel, violent and racially biased as the one we’ve got.
But it doesn’t just happen in St. Louis. This happens nationwide. Black and brown people are overrepresented on death row and in the larger prison system. This is all despite a 2014 study by the National Academy of Sciences that revealed 1 out of every 25 people on death row is innocent. Credible allegations have been made of jurors’ racial bias in administering death sentences, and more than 170 people have been exonerated after being wrongly convicted and sentenced to death, but the government continues to wield its capability to murder in the name of justice.
In Brandon’s case, five of the jurors called for the Trump Administration to spare his life. The former federal prosecutor involved in the case wrote an op-ed about why she didn’t think he deserved to be put to death. Advocates, lawmakers, celebrities and the public pleaded and called on Trump to do the right thing. Still, it was not enough.
This decision of life or death does not solely depend on the President. An act of Congress could abolish the federal death penalty once and for all, and my sister in service, Representative Ayanna Pressley, has introduced a bill that would do just that. When I get to Congress next month, I will be proud to cosponsor it. Until that legislation becomes law, it is on the executive branch to end state-sanctioned murder.
Ending the death penalty is about justice. It’s about mercy. It’s about putting a stop to this nation’s dark history of lynching and slavery. It’s about making it clear that our government should not have the power to end a life. We must build a fair criminal-legal system on a foundation of mercy, due process and equity. We must break the cycles of death, devastation and trauma that have broken Black and brown communities like mine.
President-elect Biden must move beyond just opposing the death penalty. He must end it.
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