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December 16, 2021

Rep. Pressley, Chair Raskin Request Briefing on DOJ’s Plans Regarding Federal Executions by Lethal Injection

Text of Letter (PDF)

WASHINGTON – Today, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (MA-07), a member of the House Oversight Committee, and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), Chairman of the Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland requesting information about whether the Department of Justice (DOJ) plans to resume federal executions and procure pentobarbital sodium for use in such executions.

“Given its recent actions, we are concerned that DOJ may renew its efforts to obtain pentobarbital from non-FDA-regulated pharmacies for use in future federal executions.  This would be consistent with the actions of certain states that have continued using single-drug pentobarbital in state executions,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter.

On August 14, 2019, the Subcommittee sent a letter to DOJ regarding the Trump Administration’s decision to resume federal executions using pentobarbital sodium in a single-drug, lethal-injection protocol, despite multiple reports from states that the drug caused incarcerated individuals to scream of burning pain and writhe in agony while strapped to gurneys.  Despite these concerning reports, the Trump Administration used pentobarbital sourced from compounding pharmacies, which are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), to conduct 13 executions between July 14, 2020, and January 16, 2021.

On July 1, 2021, the Biden Administration issued a moratorium on all federal executions pending a review of the 2019 letter.  But in October 2021, DOJ urged the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate the death penalty for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, raising questions about the Department’s plans to resume federal executions. 

Several states have continued to use pentobarbital to execute incarcerated individuals, with at least 14 adopting the single-drug pentobarbital execution protocol.  Texas has executed three incarcerated people using this protocol since May 2021.  Most recently, 61-year-old Ernest Johnson was put to death using the single-drug pentobarbital execution protocol in Missouri. 

The Members requested DOJ to provide a staff briefing by December 23, 2021, regarding its July 2021 review, including any findings; any plans to resume federal executions; any plans to procure pentobarbital for the purpose of conducting executions; and DOJ’s policies, practices, or guidance on federal executions.

Congresswoman Pressley is the lead sponsor of H.R. 262, the Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act of 2021, legislation to prohibit the use of the death penalty at the federal level and require re-sentencing of those currently on death row. The legislation is sponsored in the U.S. Senate by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The pair first introduced  the bill in July 2019, on the same day the Trump Administration announced it would resume executions.

In January 2021, Congresswoman Pressley and Congresswoman Cori Bush (D-MO) led more than 35 of their House colleagues in sending a letter to President Biden calling on him to commute the sentences of every person on federal death row.

Later that month, Congresswoman Pressley and Reps. Adriano Espaillat (NY-13) and Robin Kelly (IL-02) wrote to then-Attorney General-nominee Judge Merrick B. Garland urging him to prioritize President Biden’s commitment to working with Congress to end the federal death penalty and incentivizing states to end capital punishment across the country.

In December 2020, Congresswoman Pressley led 41 of her House colleagues and three Representatives-Elect on a letter calling on President-Elect Joe Biden to end the use of the federal death penalty on his first day in office. 

In November 2020, Congresswoman Pressley and Senator Durbin, along with Senators Patrick Leahy and Cory Booker, wrote to Attorney General Bill Barr calling for a halt on all scheduled federal executions during the presidential transition period.