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Legal Expert Lambastes William Barr’s Death Penalty Move as ‘Thunder Signifying Nothing’


A couple of Duke University Law professors were quick to respond to U.S. Attorney General William Barr’s Thursday announcement that he was bringing federal executions back. One of the scholars went so far as to say that the move was “thunder signifying nothing.”

In case you missed it, Barr announced earlier Thursday that the the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) would lift the moratorium on federal executions. Barr directed Hugh Hurwitz, the Acting Director of the BOP, to schedule the executions of five inmates currently on death-row who were convicted of “murdering and in some cases torturing and raping, the most vulnerable in our society – children and the elderly.”

“Under Administrations of both parties, the Department of Justice has sought the death penalty against the worst criminals, including these five murderers, each of whom was convicted by a jury of his peers after a full and fair proceeding,” Barr said. “The Justice Department upholds the rule of law—and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”

The last federal execution occurred in 2003.

Duke University law professor James E. Coleman Jr. said the DOJ move was “just one more effort by the administration to pick off low-hanging fruit that gives its political base a sense that something is happening.”

“Like the president’s heated rhetoric, however, it is just thunder signifying nothing. The public is rapidly losing faith in the death penalty. This move will not change that trend,” Coleman Jr. said.

The group Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty (CCATDP) also noted the national trend away from the death penalty.

“Resumption of executions by the federal government goes against the trend we have seen in states across the nation, where executions and sentences are at historic lows,” Hannah Cox, National Manager of CCATDP, said in a statement to Law&Crime. “A growing number of conservative state lawmakers are driving that trend because they realize that capital punishment goes against their principles of valuing life, fiscal responsibility and limited government, and that the death penalty does nothing to make the public safer.”

Coleman Jr.’s colleague, Duke University law professor Brandon L. Garrett, agreed that the Barr announcement sounded “dramatic,” but pointed out that previous Attorneys General have tried this before and failed.

“However dramatic it may sound, the announcement that federal executions will resume certainly does not mean that we should expect to see them any time soon,” Garrett said. “First, lawyers will challenge the execution protocol; indeed there is already pending federal litigation. Second, jurors are increasingly rejecting death sentences in federal cases and in the states. The federal death penalty has continued to decline, and although Attorneys General have tried to revive it over the years, they have not succeeded.”

Jerry Lambe contributed to this report.

[Image via Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]

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Matt Naham is the Senior A.M. Editor of Law&Crime.