“Let’s not err on the side of execution, let’s err on the side of lifetime in prison.”U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL)
TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (WTWO/WAWV) – More federal executions are scheduled for this week at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, but some legislators are calling on the Justice Department to halt these proceedings until the next administration takes office.
“It’s been the policy of the United States for the last 17 years not to engage in federal executions,” U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) told MyWabashValley.com. “In July of this year, Attorney General Barr announced that they were going to resume these executions.”
Since then, eight federal executions have been carried out.
“That represents a number larger than the total number of federal prisoners executed in the last 60 years,” Durbin noted. “Now Attorney General Barr says there’ll be five more before the president leaves in five weeks.”
Durbin, along with Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), as well as U.S. Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) penned a letter to Attorney General William Barr saying failure to halt the executions would “cause irrevocable injustice.”
The group noted Vice-President Elect Kamala Harris was a cosponsor of legislation they introduced last year intended to abolish the death penalty altogether.
“A record number of Americans voted in favor of President-Elect Biden and Vice-President Elect Harris and they deserve an opportunity to implement their policy agenda without the Trump Administration rushing to take preemptive and irreversible steps,” the letter stated.
Durbin was not always against the death penalty. He said his change of heart came after seeing “the overwhelming evidence and mistakes that were made. People who were mistakenly executed, accused of a crime they didn’t commit, prosecuted, convicted and killed by the state.
“I just thought that was unacceptable,” he said. “We had reached the point now where too often those were people of color and poor people, and too often we were wrong.”
Durbin’s home state of Illinois abolished capital punishment in March of 2011.
When Durbin first started speaking out against the death penalty, he wanted to keep a door open for federal capital punishment in cases of terrorism or treason. Today, he said he’s torn on the issue.
“There are some crimes that are so heinous and affect so many people that they may fall into a different category,” he noted, “but I would just say categorically in the overwhelming percentage of cases, I would not support the death penalty.”
Durbin questioned if they death penalty could ever be implemented justly.
“I recall when Supreme Court Justice Blackmun, at the end of his career wrote the story of his service on the court. And after all the years—decades of trying to find fairness in the imposition of the death penalty, he finally reached the conclusion that we couldn’t do it,” Durbin said. “Unfortunately, there were certain things built into our system that ended up having an impact on the ultimate judgment in the cases involving the death penalty. I’m skeptical that we can legislate our way out of that. There have been many courts and many legislators that have tried. I think it is far better to have the presumption against the death penalty.”