Capital punishment is legal in 31 states, as well as at the federal level.National Conference of State Legislatures, “States and Capital Punishment,” June 6, 2018. In the past half century, however, the federal government has executed just three people.Death Penalty Information Center, “Federal Death Penalty,”
But this year both President Trump and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions advocated for more use of the death penalty.Kevin Breuninger, “Attorney General Jeff Sessions Outlines When to Use Death Penalty on Drug Traffickers,” CNBC, March 21, 2018. In a March memo, Sessions encouraged U.S. Attorneys to seek the death penalty in “appropriate cases,” including murder related to racketeering crimes, gun deaths occurring during drug trafficking crimes, and murder related to criminal enterprise.Memorandum from Attorney General Jeff Sessions to United States Attorneys, “Guidance Regarding Use of Capital Punishment in Drug-Related Prosecutions” (Washington, DC: Office of the Attorney General, March 20, 2018). Citing the opioid crisis as justification, Sessions also prescribed pursuing capital punishment for cases involving “dealing in extremely large quantities of drugs.”Memorandum from Attorney General Jeff Sessions to United States Attorneys, “Guidance Regarding Use of Capital Punishment in Drug-Related Prosecutions” (Washington, DC: Office of the Attorney General, March 20, 2018). With Sessions’s November departure from the Justice Department, his successor’s federal sentencing priorities seemed to be an open question, until a nominee emerged: William Barr, the former Attorney General who had praised Sessions’s priorities and actions.Jon Wiener, “William Barr: Worse Than Jeff Sessions?” The Nation, December 13, 2018; and William P. Barr, Edwin Meese III, and Michael B. Mukasey, “Jeff Sessions Can Look Back on a Job Well Done,” Washington Post, November 9, 2018. President Trump has also called for the death penalty for Robert Bowers, who is charged with massacring 11 people in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue in October.“Trump Calls for Death Penalty for Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting Suspect Robert Bowers,” KDKA, October 31, 2018.