Terre Haute became the stage for a misuse of the federal death penalty, a punishment long reserved as a last resort in America’s justice system.

Instead, executions morphed into a political spectacle.

A repeat of that sad chapter in history is unlikely, at least for a few years. Current U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland has imposed a moratorium on federal executions while the Department of Justice reviews its policies and procedures, including the drugs used for lethal injections. That step is prudent after the events of 2020 and early 2021.

A resumption of federal executions — after a 17-year hiatus that stretched from the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies through the first three years of Donald Trump’s term — was announced on July 25, 2019, by Trump’s Attorney General William Barr. It was the morning after special counsel Robert Mueller finished his testimony before Congress on Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion by Trump. The announcement appeared intended to divert the public’s attention, disguised as an overdue delivery of justice to the victims’ families.

After legal challenges, a string of 13 executions in a six-month span began in July 2020, continued through President Trump’s reelection campaign against eventual winner Joe Biden, and then finally ended just days before Trump’s term concluded on Jan. 20, 2021.

All of those executions were carried out at the Terre Haute Federal Correctional Complex, which houses the nation’s only federal death chamber. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic raged, Barr resisted halting the lethal injections. It turned into a coronavirus super-spreader situation, with correctional officers, traveling Bureau of Prisons execution team staff, media witnesses and inmates contracting COVID.

It was a bizarre episode. The number of executions was the most under any president since the 19th century.

No executions have been carried out since President Biden took office. The moratorium announced by Garland on Thursday included no timetable for the review, only an explanation of its purpose, The Associated Press reported.

“The Department of Justice must ensure that everyone in the federal criminal justice system is not only afforded the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States, but is also treated fairly and humanely,” Garland said. “That obligation has special force in capital cases.”

The review does not prevent federal prosecutors from seeking the death penalty, nor does it stop future administrations from resuming federal executions. It does, though, give reviewers time to assess the execution protocols put in place under Barr. Specifically, they will study the drug pentobarbital, which replaced the now-hard-to-obtain three-drug mix previously used for lethal injections. Also, the reasons behind the disproportionate number of Black and minority inmates on death rows will also be rightly reviewed.

Support among Americans for the death penalty has reached historic lows, though approval still hovers near 55%, according to the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center. That growing uneasiness, the recent unseemly taint of politics inside the execution process, the methods and racial inequalities validate the timing of the moratorium.

Tribune-Star, Terre Haute

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