U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland ordered a halt to federal executions pending a review of the Justice Department’s death penalty policies and procedures.
“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 statement Thursday night. “That obligation has special force in capital cases.”
Among the issues under review are the use of pentobarbital, a sedative often used in executions. The department is also reviewing changes made in the Trump administration in November that “expanded the permissible methods of execution beyond lethal injection,” to possibly include death by firing squad or gas.
Federal executions are rare in the U.S., but were restarted in the Trump administration last year after a nearly 17-year pause. There have been a total of 50 federal executions since 1927, with the latest coming Jan. 16, four days before Trump left office, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
“The President is pleased that the Attorney General is taking these steps,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement. “As the President has made clear, he has significant concerns about the death penalty and how it is implemented, and he believes the Department of Justice should return to its prior practice of not carrying out executions.”
From July 2020 to January 2021, 13 people in federal custody were executed, all at the U.S. prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Most U.S. executions occur at the state level in the U.S. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 1,534 people have been executed in the U.S. since 1976. Another 2,553 people are currently on death row, including four in military custody, according to the center.