Attorney General Merrick Garland has ordered a temporary halt to the Justice Department advocating any scheduling of further executions of federal inmates, according to a memo to senior officials at the department.
Garland in the memo Thursday echoed his own recently stated reservations about use of the death penalty, noting a number of defendants who were later exonerated as well as statistics showing possible discriminatory impact on minorities.
"The Department ofJustice must ensure that everyone in the federal criminal justice system is not only afforded the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States, but is also treated fairly and humanely," he wrote. "That obligation has special force in capital cases. Serious concerns have been raised about the continued use of the death penalty across the country, including arbitrariness in its application, disparate impact on people of color, and the troubling number of exonerations in capital and other serious cases."
"Those weighty concerns deserve careful study and evaluation by lawmakers. In the meantime, the Department must take care to scrupulously maintain our commitment to fairness and humane treatment in the administration of existing federal laws governing capital sentences," he continued.
Garland’s memorandum directs the deputy attorney general to lead a multi-pronged review of recent policy changes and requires the reviews to include consultations with a wide range of stakeholders including the relevant department components, other federal and state agencies, medical experts and experienced capital counsel, among others, according to a DOJ news release. No federal executions will be scheduled while the reviews are pending.
The new directive comes after Garland's predecessor in the job, William Barr, had resumed the department's use of capital punishment against inmates a year ago, after a nearly two-decade lapse. He also pushed for executions of several federal prisoners during the transition period before President Joe Biden -- who opposes the death penalty -- took office.
The federal government in 2020 executed more people than all 50 states combined, according to a year-end report from the Death Penalty Institute, a non-partisan, death penalty information center that tracks death row inmates and executions.
The directive, however, is not expected to impact the department's position taken recently in the case of Boston bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev, a person familiar with the matter told ABC News. Officials last month urged the Supreme Court to overturn a lower court's ruling and reinstate Tsarnaev's death penalty despite Biden's stated opposition to capital punishment.