Prosecutors elected to uphold death penalty cases make a pledge: to end executions
Fifty-six elected prosecutors from 26 states pledged to work to effectively end the death penalty, including by refusing to support the execution of people with intellectual disabilities, seeking commutations, and helping to overturn sentences in cases of racial bias, negligent defense counsel or other misconduct.
"Many of us have been on the front lines of the effort to reform the American death penalty. Others have witnessed — and in some cases been directly involved in — prosecutorial efforts to seek capital punishment," the joint statement, shared by Fair and Just Prosecution, a bipartisan network of elected prosecutors, said Thursday.
"Although we hold varied opinions surrounding the death penalty and hail from jurisdictions with different starting points on the propriety of this sentence, we have all now arrived at the same inexorable conclusion: our country's system of capital punishment is broken."
The coalition of district attorneys and state attorneys general is made up of mostly Democrats, but includes at least one Republican — Christian Gossett, the district attorney of Winnebago County, Wisconsin — and they hail from some of the largest counties and cities in the country, as well as rural communities.
Eleven of the states they represent still have the death penalty, including Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas.
Miriam Krinsky, the executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, said prosecutors have historically had a strong hand in promoting "tough-on-crime" laws that have disproportionately affected people of color and put hundreds of people to death, including those whose guilt was later called into question.
"Now, for them to bring their voices together in an unexpected way and to turn back that tide is significant," Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor in California, said. "Our hope is they will be change agents in their states. Fifty-six of them coming together is a powerful number."
The prosecutors' pledge comes as states have revived their death chambers following months of no activity during the coronavirus pandemic.
Texas has five executions slated this year. Oklahoma is set to execute a man Thursday, its second since the start of 2022 and the fourth since October.
On the flip side, the spree of federal executions that had become the norm under the Trump administration has been suspended under the Biden administration, although the White House has not said whether President Joe Biden will fulfill a campaign promise to eliminate the federal death penalty.
Meanwhile, recent executions have been called into question following lethal injection protocols that lawyers and death penalty opponents say pose the risk of causing undue pain and suffering.
Recent cases of inmates being put to death in Missouri and Alabama have also come under scrutiny as examples of how executing people with intellectual disabilities violates their constitutional rights.
While polling has shown support for the death penalty among Americans has been on the decline in recent decades, efforts in some states to repeal or abolish it have been mixed. Last year, Virginia became the first Southern state to do away with capital punishment, in large part because Democrats controlled its Legislature at the time.
But in Utah, a bill that would have ended the death penalty narrowly lost in a committee vote Monday after families of victims spoke out. One mother told lawmakers that she was grateful there is the option of the death penalty because it was used as leverage to force her daughter's killer to provide information in exchange for him not being executed, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.
"There are monsters in the world that should never be out of prison," Jessica Black, the mother of 5-year-old Elizabeth Shelley, said. "Having the death penalty allowed us to find our daughter and put the monster in prison for the rest of his life."
Krinsky said changing people's minds won't be easy, but she believes prosecutors are a needed voice in the conversation.
"We're at a moment in time when some states are starting to resurrect executions and move forward on them," she said. "But we also know prosecutors and elected prosecutors have a huge ability to be a guidepost and to show others it's safe to follow your conscience."
CORRECTION (Feb. 17, 2022, 12:01 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated how many executions Oklahoma has carried out this year. Thursday’s planned execution is its second, not the first.