On Monday morning, the Supreme Court declined to rule on a lower court's decision on the death penalty, effectively letting the federal government carry out executions as early as this July. By refusing to block federal use of the death penalty, the court's ruling upholds a 2019 Justice Department decision to resume state-sanctioned killing.
On June 15, Attorney General William Barr directed the Bureau of Prisons to schedule the executions of four men who murdered children, and in two cases, raped them before committing murder. In a press release addressing the decision to move forward with the executions, Barr said, "The American people, acting through Congress and presidents of both political parties, have long instructed that defendants convicted of the most heinous crimes should be subject to a sentence of death."
Three of the executions are scheduled for July, with another set for August. These would be the first federal executions since 2003. Lawyers for the men had previously attempted to block their executions through court petitions, which were ultimately unsuccessful.
Despite this most recent decision, the Supreme Court has not always agreed on the use of the death penalty. In 1972, the court declared executions unconstitutional, but later reversed its opinion, reinstating the use of the death penalty just 16 years later in 1988. In 1994, Congress passed legislation that expanded the reasons for which a person could be executed by the government, including murders committed by incarcerated individuals and murders or deaths that are the result of other crimes like kidnapping.
Federal executions are carried out by lethal injection, which the court affirmed the use of in a 2015 decision, when the justices ruled that a drug responsible for a number of botched executions could still be used to carry out the death penalty.
There are currently 62 incarcerated people convicted of crimes like murder and rape, awaiting federal execution. In 2003 there were just 26 people awaiting federal execution. Those sentenced to the death penalty have typically committed what many believe to be the most heinous versions of rape and/or murder, including Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who helped carry out the Boston Marathon bombing, and Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who murdered nine Black people as they were praying in a South Carolina church.
Since 1988 when the federal death penalty was reinstated, the federal government has only executed three individuals. State-level executions have also decreased in recent decades, due in part to national movements challenging the use of the death penalty. Many say that the death penalty is both ineffective in preventing future crime and discriminatory. A lawyer for the man slated to be executed on July 13 said that the death penalty is "arbitrary, racially-biased, and rife with poor lawyering and junk science."
People of color account for over half of the individuals currently serving time on death row. Twenty-six of the 62 individuals are Black — 41% of those slated for the death penalty, even though Black people represent just 13% of the American population. Social scientists and researchers say that there are many potential causes of this disparity, including the criminalization of poverty and everyday violence many Black people face. Experts also cite disparities in jury decisions based on the race of victims, noting that in cases with white murder victims, perpetrators were more likely to receive a death sentence.