US to resume federal executions for first time in 16 years

Attorney general William Barr instructs killing of five accused of murdering children

The US justice department has said the federal government will resume executing death-row inmates for the first time since 2003.

Attorney general William Barr instructed the Bureau of Prisons to schedule executions starting in December for five men, all accused of murdering children.

Although the death penalty remains legal in 30 states, executions on the federal level are rare.

“The justice department upholds the rule of law – and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” Mr Barr said.


The move is likely to stir up fresh interest in an issue that has largely lain dormant in recent years, adding a new front to the culture battles that US president Donald Trump already is waging on matters such as abortion and immigration in the lead-up to the 2020 elections.

Most Democrats oppose capital punishment.

Former vice president Joe Biden this week shifted to call for the elimination of the federal death penalty after years of supporting it.

By contrast, Mr Trump has spoken often – and sometimes wistfully – about capital punishment and his belief that executions serve as both an effective deterrent and appropriate punishment for some crimes, including mass shootings and the killings of police officers.

"I think they should very much bring the death penalty into vogue," Mr Trump said last year after 11 people were gunned down in a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Mr Trump was a vocal proponent of the death penalty for decades before taking office, most notably in 1989 when he took out full-page advertisements in New York City newspapers urging elected officials to "Bring back the death penalty" following the rape of a jogger in Central Park.

“If the punishment is strong,” he wrote then, “the attacks on innocent people will stop.”


Five Harlem teenagers were convicted in the Central Park case but had their convictions vacated years later after another man confessed to the rape.

More than a decade after their exoneration, the city agreed to pay the so-called Central Park Five $41 million, a settlement Mr Trump blasted as “outrageous”.

The death penalty remains legal in 30 states, but only a handful regularly conduct executions. Texas has executed 108 prisoners since 2010, far more than any other state.

Executions on the federal level have long been rare.

The government has put to death only three defendants since restoring the federal death penalty in 1988, the most recent of which occurred in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of a young female soldier.

In 2014, following a botched state execution in Oklahoma, then-president Barack Obama directed the justice department to conduct a broad review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal injection drugs.

That review has been completed, Mr Barr said Thursday, and it has cleared the way for executions to resume.

Mr Barr approved a new procedure for lethal injections that replaces the three-drug cocktail previously used in federal execution with a single drug, pentobarbital. This is similar to the procedure used in several states, including Georgia, Missouri and Texas.

Although there has not been a federal execution since 2003, the justice department has continued to approve death penalty prosecutions and federal courts have sentenced defendants to death.– AP