After nearly two decades without an execution, the federal government will put five people to death in December and January, the Justice Department announced on Thursday.
The DOJ also announced a change to the execution process. The traditional three-drug cocktail used for lethal injections with be replaced with the single drug pentobarbital. A handful of states have made a similar move after sodium thiopental, one of the three drugs used in the cocktail, became difficult to obtain after foreign manufacturers refused to sell it for use in executions.
In a statement, Attorney General William Barr said, “We owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”
The DOJ announcement marks an end to an unofficial moratorium on federal executions. The death penalty is legal in 29 states, which execute around two dozen people each year. But the federal government hasn’t executed anyone since 2003 and has only put three people to death since 1976. The five inmates whose executions have been scheduled for December and January have “exhausted their appellate and post-conviction remedies,” according to the Justice Department. All have been “convicted of murdering, and in some cases torturing and raping, the most vulnerable in our society — children and the elderly.”
While it’s been nearly two decades since a federal inmate was executed, people were still sentenced to death during that time. In the past decade, death sentences were handed down to high-profile inmates such as Dylann Roof and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
But the number of federal death-penalty cases has increased under President Trump, a vocal fan of capital punishment. In 1989, he placed an ad in four New York City newspapers calling for the execution of the Central Park Five, who were later exonerated.
Trumps’ potential 2020 rivals, meanwhile, have swung in the other direction. Just this week, Joe Biden came out against the death penalty, meaning every top 2020 Democratic favors its abolition.