Attorney General Merrick Garland Thursday ordered a moratorium on federal executions to allow for a Justice Department review of death penalty policy.
“The Department of Justice 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,” Garland said in a memorandum. “That obligation has special force in capital cases.”
Garland's action comes after the Justice Department in 2019 ordered a revival of federal executions by lethal injection, using a powerful one-drug protocol.
The change paved the way for 13 executions between July 2020 and January 2021.
"In the last two years, the department made a series of changes to capital case policies and procedures and carried out the first federal executions in nearly two decades between July 2020 and January 2021," according to the department. "That included adopting a new protocol for administering lethal injections at the federal Bureau of Prisons, using the drug pentobarbital."
Garland has directed Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco to lead the review.
During his confirmation hearing, Garland said continuing exonerations of the wrongly convicted have given him “pause,” and he cited President Joe Biden’s strong opposition to capital punishment.
“A most terrible thing happens when someone is executed for a crime that they did not commit,” Garland said.
At that time, Garland said he harbored “great” concern about the application of the death penalty by the federal government, which dramatically resumed executions during the Trump administration.
Read Merrick Garland's memo: Moratorium on Federal Executions Pending Review of Policies and Procedures
Federal executions resumed in 2019
Former Attorney General William Barr resumed federal executions in 2019 after a 17-year hiatus. Barr ordered the government to adopt a new method using the single drug, pentobarbital.
The 13 people executed during the Trump administration outnumbered any presidency since Franklin D. Roosevelt's. Before last year, the federal government had executed only three people since the death penalty was reinstated in 1988.
The execution spree was criticized by death penalty experts and advocates who say it highlights longstanding inequalities in a criminal justice system that continues to disproportionately treat Black prisoners as the worst of the worst criminals.
"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," Garland wrote in the Thursday memorandum.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Federal executions: AG Merrick Garland orders halt, policy review