Garland’s Approval Marks Shift as Justice Department Seeks Death Penalty for White Supremacist Mass Shooter

WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General Merrick Garland has made a significant shift in his approach to the death penalty. After implementing a moratorium on federal executions earlier this year and vowing to abolish the death penalty, Garland’s Justice Department has now decided to seek capital punishment for a white supremacist who killed 10 Black people at a Buffalo supermarket. While this decision does not overturn the halt on federal executions, it marks Garland’s first approval of a new capital prosecution and signals a new chapter in the complex history of the death penalty in the U.S.

Under President Joe Biden, who campaigned on the promise to abolish the death penalty, the Justice Department has shown a mixed approach. While capital punishment has been significantly scaled back under Garland’s leadership, the department has demonstrated a continued willingness to use it in certain cases. White House spokesman Andrew Bates did not object to the decision in the Buffalo case, stating that individual cases are left to the appropriate authorities.

The inconsistencies in the approach to the death penalty by the current administration are evident. Eric Berger, a law professor at the University of Nebraska, noted that the Justice Department is less inclined to use the death penalty than the Trump administration but has not completely discarded it either.

During Garland’s tenure, the Justice Department has reversed more than two dozen decisions to seek the death penalty. However, Garland has authorized the continuation of two death penalty cases inherited from his predecessor, including the case of Robert Bowers, who carried out a deadly antisemitic attack in Pittsburgh.

The decision to seek the death penalty for the Buffalo supermarket shooter, Payton Gendron, raises questions about the factors influencing Garland’s choices. Gendron, a white supremacist, targeted a predominantly Black neighborhood, and the attack was racially motivated. Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University, suggests that Garland’s decision reflects what he deems important and what would lead him to seek the death penalty.

Garland’s Justice Department has revised its manual to prioritize cases that cause significant harm to the country. Despite this, the department did not pursue the death penalty in the case of the racist mass shooting at an El Paso Wal-Mart, where the shooter had a diagnosed severe mental health condition.

The case of Payton Gendron, who has pleaded guilty, also raises concerns about severe punishments for young defendants and evolving understandings of brain development. Robin Maher, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, highlights the increasing scrutiny from courts regarding harsh penalties for young offenders.

Critics argue that Biden’s action on fulfilling his campaign promise to abolish the death penalty has been limited. They call for him to commute the sentences of those on federal death row. Although a moratorium on federal executions is in place, and the Justice Department has fought to maintain the sentences of death row inmates, there is no indication of when Garland’s review of execution policies will be completed.

The decision to seek the death penalty for the Buffalo supermarket shooter has drawn mixed reactions from the loved ones of the victims. The lengthy review process for the death penalty decision involves the U.S. Attorney overseeing the case and a review committee.

As the death penalty debate continues, Garland’s approach appears to be characterized by meticulousness and adherence to due process. Regardless of one’s stance on the death penalty, his decisions will be guided by a careful consideration of the facts.

In summary, Attorney General Merrick Garland’s Justice Department has taken a different approach to the death penalty compared to his predecessors. While implementing a moratorium on federal executions, Garland has now approved a new capital prosecution in the case of the Buffalo supermarket shooter. This decision reflects the complex history and ongoing debates surrounding the death penalty in the United States.