Democrats Unveil Legislation To Abolish The Federal Death Penalty In an exclusive interview with NPR, Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Ayanna Pressley discuss their push to end capital punishment at the federal level as their party takes full control of Congress.


Democrats Unveil Legislation To Abolish The Federal Death Penalty

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To another story now. With Democrats set to control both chambers of Congress and the White House, there's a new push to outlaw the federal death penalty. This comes shortly after the Trump administration revived its use. NPR political reporter Juana Summers has been talking with the two Democratic lawmakers leading this effort. She's here now.

Hey, Juana.


KELLY: So who are these two lawmakers, and what exactly are they calling for?

SUMMERS: So this legislation comes from Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois. It would end capital punishment at the federal level and require that every person currently on death row be sentenced again. Take a listen to what Durbin told me. And I should note, he is the incoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

DICK DURBIN: Here we are in the closing hours of the Trump administration, when they are in a mad dash to give pardons for the federal crimes committed for their friends and an equally mad dash to try to execute these people who have been on death row for years, if not decades. That is just unconscionable.

SUMMERS: Now, it's pretty significant that Durbin's one of the people leading this effort and that he's putting a focus on this issue as Democrats prepare to take complete control of Congress. And this, of course, comes after we saw the Trump administration resume federal executions after a 17-year hiatus. Former Attorney General Bill Barr said at the time that the federal government was carrying out the will of the judges and juries and providing justice for, quote, "staggeringly brutal murders."

KELLY: Although, as you noted, Juana, Bill Barr is the former attorney general, and President Trump is about to become the former president of the United States. Where does the incoming president - where does Joe Biden stand on this?

SUMMERS: Yeah. Mary Louise, Biden has said that he wants to work with Congress to pass a law to eliminate capital punishment at the federal level and to incentivize states to follow that example. Congresswoman Pressley says she has talked with the Biden transition team about this issue, and she wants to see Biden act on Day 1.

AYANNA PRESSLEY: President Biden will have the authority, and I'm calling on him to use that full authority with the stroke of a pen to halt all federal executions and save lives. He should also require the DOJ to no longer seek the death penalty for future cases and permanently dismantle the Terre Haute facility where these federal executions take place.

SUMMERS: Now, Pressley told me that executive action on Day 1 is critical. It's also important that this legislation be passed so that a future president doesn't simply opt to reinstate this practice in the future.

KELLY: You know, one criticism of capital punishment is the history of it not being equally applied, the history of racial disparities here in the states. Is that something on these two lawmakers' minds?

SUMMERS: It absolutely is. They both brought it up - the notion that low-income people, Black and brown people are disproportionately killed by the death penalty. Take a listen to what Senator Durbin told me.

DURBIN: If we truly believe that all lives matter and Black lives matter and brown lives matter and the lives of poor people matter, it is time for us to make sure that our system of justice reflects that.

SUMMERS: Congresswoman Pressley made a similar point that this country is in this powerful moment of reckoning on racial justice. And she believes that abolishing capital punishment is a racial justice issue within itself.

KELLY: Pressley and Durbin - again, both Democrats. Are Republicans on board with this?

SUMMERS: Yeah, that remains to be seen. You know, support for capital punishment is at its lowest point over the past five decades, according to Gallup surveys. Both lawmakers say that shift in public sentiment means there may be an opening here. Congressman Presley specifically pointed to what she described as an outpouring of support in the days surrounding the execution of Brandon Bernard last year. You know, he spent more than half of his life on death row for his involvement in the fatal shooting and kidnapping of two youth ministers when he was just 18 years old. He appealed to the president for clemency, but the Justice Department did proceed with that execution.

KELLY: All right. Thank you, Juana.

SUMMERS: Thanks.

KELLY: That's NPR's Juana Summers.


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