On Tuesday, the Department of Justice (DOJ) asked the Supreme Court to reinstate the death penalty for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, whose death sentence was overturned last year due to potential jury selection bias.
The request runs counter to President Joe Biden’s stated opposition to the death penalty and frustrated Democrats and progressives. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts) issued a statement on Tuesday panning the request, saying that the death penalty is a cruel practice.
“State-sanctioned murder is not justice, no matter how heinous the crime. President Biden has repeatedly expressed his opposition to the death penalty and has the historic opportunity to finally bring an end to this inhumane, racist and flawed practice,” Pressley said in a statement. “I am deeply disappointed that the Department of Justice would move in conflict with the President’s stated policy position and abandon promises made to voters.”
Biden had indeed promised to end federal use of the death penalty while he was campaigning for president, acknowledging its deeply flawed implementation. But advocates for abolishing the death penalty noted that Biden’s first 100 days and more came and went without any movement on the issue.
Tsarnaev was sentenced to death for bombing the Boston Marathon in 2013, an attack that killed three people and injured over 200 others. But the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that penalty last year, ruling that the trial judge had not properly protected Tsarnaev from bias in jury selection.
While Tsarnaev’s crime was “devastating,” it doesn’t justify giving the state the power to kill, Pressley said. “Let me be clear – no just nation should be in the business of executing people.” Even the parents of two of the victims of the attack have previously come out against the death penalty for Tsarnaev.
“Since the election, I have been calling on President Biden to take swift executive action to halt all federal executions and resentence those on death row,” Pressley said. She concluded with a plea to Congress to pass her bill, the Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act of 2021, to end federal use of the death penalty and re-sentence the 46 people currently on federal death row.
Democrats and progressives are further frustrated by the DOJ’s request to reinstate the death penalty for Tsarnaev because it deepens the agency’s attachment to Trump-era policies. As Pressley pointed out, Trump had gone on a death row execution spree just before he left office, using questionable processes and ignoring legal barriers with the help of his Attorney General William Barr.
Based on Biden’s campaign promises about the death penalty, progressives had looked forward to a transformation of the Justice Department under his presidency. In December 2020, lawmakers led by Pressley had sent a letter to Biden pleading with him to end federal use of the death penalty on his first day in office — but that plea went unheeded.
Now progressives and Democrats are growing more and more frustrated with Biden’s Justice Department. Under Attorney General Merrick Garland, the DOJ has continued seizing land for Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall and supported denying undocumented immigrants on humanitarian visas a path to citizenship.
“I am very concerned by what I had hoped would be a departure from some of the worst behaviors of the Trump administration,” Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-New York) told the Daily Beast speaking about the current Justice Department.
Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) told the publication that some recent Justice Department moves are “really troubling” and that Democrats and progressives are preparing a letter stating their concerns to be sent to AG Garland.
“It is not enough to just return the Department of Justice to some sort of pre-Trump norm,” Jayapal told the Daily Beast. “You actually have to have public accountability for all the things that have happened, and I think that if you don’t have that, you cannot restore faith of the American people in the Department of Justice.”