Despite Promise, Biden Retains Trump's Death Sentence Zeal

Defense lawyers say they see no change in direction from the Justice Department
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Mar 26, 2023 10:50 AM CDT
Despite Promise, Biden Retains Trump's Death Sentence Zeal
This photo provided by Taylor Legal Team shows Rejon Taylor.   (Taylor Legal Team via AP)

Rejon Taylor hoped the election of Joe Biden, the first US president to campaign on a pledge to end the death penalty, would mean a more sympathetic look at his claims that racial bias and other trial errors landed him on federal death row in Terre Haute, Indiana. But two years on, Justice Department attorneys under Biden are fighting the Black man's efforts to reverse his 2008 death sentence for killing a white restaurateur as hard as they did under Donald Trump, who oversaw 13 executions in his presidency's final months, the AP reports. "Every legal means they have available they’re using to fight us," said the 38-year-old's lawyer, Kelley Henry. "It's business as usual."

Death penalty opponents expected Biden to act within weeks of taking office to fulfill his 2020 campaign promise to end capital punishment on the federal level and to work at ending it in states that still carry out executions. Instead, Biden has taken no steps toward fulfilling that promise. But it's not just inaction by Biden. An AP review of dozens of legal filings shows Biden's Justice Department is fighting vigorously in courts to maintain the sentences of death row inmates, even after Attorney General Merrick Garland temporarily paused executions. Lawyers for some of the over 40 death row inmates say they've seen no meaningful differences in the Justice Department's approach under Biden and Trump.

"They're fighting back as much as they ever have," said Ruth Friedman, head of the defender unit that oversees federal death row cases. "If you say my client has an intellectual disability, the government ... says, 'No, he does not.' If you say 'I'd like (new evidence),' they say, 'You aren't entitled to it.'" The Justice Department confirmed that since Biden’s inauguration, it hasn't agreed with a single claim of racial bias or errors that could lead to the overturning of a federal death sentence. Seven federal defendants are still facing possible death sentences. It's a thorny political issue. While Americans increasingly oppose capital punishment, it is deeply entrenched.

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In announcing the 2021 moratorium, Garland noted concerns about how capital punishment disproportionately impacts people of color. He hasn't authorized a single new death penalty case and has reversed decisions by previous administrations to seek it in 27 cases. Taylor was charged with killing restaurant owner Guy Luck in 2003. His lawyers say the 18-year-old "discharged his gun in a panic” as Luck tried to grab a gun inside a van in Tennessee. The prosecution described Taylor to his almost entirely white jury as a "wolf" whom they had an "obligation" to kill. An alternate later said some jurors were determined to get Taylor, recalling: "It was like, here’s this little Black boy. Let's send him to the chair." An appeals court rejected Taylor’s bias claims. As the 2024 election nears—and with the chance of someone even less sympathetic to their claims entering the Oval Office—death row inmates know the clock is ticking.

(More capital punishment stories.)

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