For a time, it seemed the United States would end the use of capital punishment at the federal level. There’d been an unofficial moratorium on executions in place since 2003, and public and political sentiment was shifting: many Americans no longer wanted the government putting people to death. As the end of Donald Trump’s first term approached, things changed. Wishing to look tough on crime ahead of the 2020 election, he instructed Attorney General William Barr and the Justice Department to resume federal executions. In Trump’s last six months as president, thirteen people were put to death. Six were killed shortly after he lost the election, and he hurried to kill three more before leaving office in January 2021. As many noted then, there had been only three federal executions in total between 1963 and Trump’s presidency.
The spree was in keeping with Trump’s longstanding support for the death penalty and his public demands for it to be used against those he thinks deserve it. It’s harder to figure out what motivates Joe Biden. He was for capital punishment before he was against it—an ardent supporter earlier in his political career but an abolitionist as a presidential candidate in 2020, when he called for “legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example.” Now, as the end of his first term approaches, he seems to be for it again.
That’s the conclusion to be drawn after Attorney General Merrick Garland announced in January that the Justice Department would seek the death penalty for Payton Gendron, who in 2022 shot and killed ten Black people at a Buffalo supermarket. In charging Gendron with hate crimes, the government cited his choice of the location “to maximize the number of Black victims.” Gendron, eighteen at the time of the massacre, was convicted in a New York court and is already serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Some of the victims’ families say this is appropriate and sufficient punishment; others welcome the possibility of his execution.
No one should minimize the nature or toll of Gendron’s crime. Even he admitted he was acting out of racial hatred. And it is understandable why someone who lost a loved one might want to see him die. The question, as ever, is whether the government should take a life, even the life of someone convicted of the most terrible act. “Justice is not suddenly restored because another person dies,” Brownsville bishop Daniel Flores wrote in trying to stop a Texas execution in 2022. Most Western and industrialized nations no longer practice capital punishment; the United States was just one of twenty countries last year to carry out executions. That is nothing to be proud of.
Perhaps Biden is making the same political calculus Trump did four years ago. If so, it doesn’t seem the solution to his stubbornly low poll numbers. Besides, the position he took in 2020 still has considerable support—and the benefit of being the right one. Following Garland’s announcement, Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois—Democratic co-sponsors of legislation to end the federal death penalty and require re-sentencing of people on death row—reminded Biden of the promise he made in 2020 and urged him to reverse the decision to seek Gendron’s execution. He can still do so, and recommit to ending capital punishment at the federal level. That would show true moral and political leadership. It would also make clear that he has higher regard for human life than his predecessor and probable opponent does.