July 9, 2020

Just Ahead of First Federal Executions in 17 Years, ACS President Russ Feingold Condemns the Cruelty and Racism Inherent in the Death Penalty


July 9, 2020

CONTACT: Nancy Rodriguez media@acslaw.org

Washington, D.C.  – Below is the statement of ACS President Russ Feingold ahead of the planned executions of Daniel Lewis Lee, Dustin Lee Honken, Keith Dwayne Nelson, and Wesley Ira Purkey.

“There has not been a federal execution since 2003, during which time the cruelty and immorality of the death penalty and the racially unjust way it is administered in this country have helped turn the tide of public opinion against the practice. Indeed, support for capital punishment remains near a 47-year low and 60 percent of Americans prefer life in prison as a punishment over the death penalty. Moreover, half of the states have either banned or declared a moratorium on the practice. But none of that seems to matter to the Administration as it tees up the government-sanctioned murder of four individuals in the coming weeks.

“The death penalty is one of the more tragic and obvious ways the racism inherent in our justice system rears its ugly head. African Americans are sentenced to death at relative rates far higher than that of whites and the majority of people on death row today are African American or Hispanic. Studies have also shown that the death penalty is sought more often against people who kill white victims than African American or Hispanic victims. By its very definition, the death penalty is the state choosing who lives and dies and more often than not, that decision seems inextricably linked to race. This is not the rule of law in action, it is direct and intentional state-sponsored racism.

“At a time of deep crisis in race relations in our country, the Administration’s decision to resume federal executions by choosing white men to first kill does not change this inherently racist system. Given this Administration’s willingness to cynically manipulate racism for its own ends, it raises the question of why these men were chosen. But regardless of the Administration’s cynical ploys, proportionately far more African Americans will no doubt face execution and the death penalty will remain a racially unjust and corrupt enterprise.

“As we have seen since its enactment, cases brought under the Federal Death Penalty Act are often plagued by issues of ineffective assistance of counsel, junk science, lack of appellate review, and other procedural deficiencies. As a letter to President Trump and Attorney General Barr from former state and federal judges noted, those sentenced to death in the federal system ‘are [overwhelmingly] poor, suffer from mental illness, and/or were subjected to relentless trauma in their developmental years.’ Rather than being reserved for the ‘worst of the worst,’ the death penalty in practice is reserved for the most vulnerable of people.  These sentences, both in conception and in practice, violate the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’

“It doesn’t have to be this way.

“Federal and state justice officials have enormous leeway in administering punishments for even the most heinous of crimes. Sentencing someone to death is a choice, a conscious decision to end someone’s life in the government’s name. The practice violates the 8th Amendment and in recent years, the American public has come to recognize the death penalty for what it is: a cruel, immoral and racist policy from a bygone past. It is past time for our national government to stop violating the Constitution and join the majority of Americans in turning against the death penalty once and for all.”



ACS believes that the Constitution is “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” We interpret the Constitution based on its text and against the backdrop of history and lived experience. Through a diverse nationwide network of progressive lawyers, law students, judges, scholars, and many others, we work to uphold the Constitution in the 21st Century by ensuring that law is a force for protecting our democracy and the public interest and for improving people’s lives. For more information, visit us at www.acslaw.org or on Twitter @acslaw.