Joe Biden’s Legacy Takes Center Stage amid DOJ Death Penalty Move

DETROIT, MI - JULY 24: Democratic presidential candidate former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden participates in a Presidential Candidates Forum at the NAACP 110th National Convention on July 24, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. The theme of this year's Convention is, When We Fight, We Win. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Former Vice President Joe Biden may now be opposed to the death penalty, but his decades-long advocacy in favor of capital punishment is taking center stage as the Department of Justice (DOJ) readies the execution of five criminals.

Joe Biden, who led the effort to expand capital punishment amid rising crime in the 1990s, announced last week he was now opposed to the practice and supported its abolition. The Democrat frontrunner did not elaborate as to why his mind had suddenly changed on the issue, instead choosing to couch his reversal in terms of protecting the innocent.

“Over 160 individuals who’ve been sentenced to death in this country since 1973 have later been exonerated,” he said in a criminal justice proposal released to the public. “Because we cannot ensure we get death penalty cases right every time, Biden will work to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example.”

The former vice president did not have much time to settle into his newfound position as only two days later Attorney General William Barr announced the DOJ would reinstate the death penalty. Barr, who previously served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, declared that the DOJ would uphold the existing law and end its 20-year reprieve on federal executions.

“Congress has expressly authorized the death penalty through legislation adopted by the people’s representatives in both houses of Congress and signed by the President,” the attorney general said in a statement announcing the decision. “The Justice Department upholds the rule of law—and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”

Barr informed the public that the first five men to be executed under the reinstated penalty were those who had been convicted of murdering children and a bevy of other offenses. According to the DOJ, each of the inmates had “exhausted their appellate and post-conviction remedies” were eligible for execution.

Despite the heinous nature of the crimes, nearly every single Democrat running for president denounced the decision as “immoral” and called for the abolition of capital punishment.

Some, like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), even claimed the death penalty targeted minorities at a “disproportionately” higher rate than other criminals.

Biden, new to the death penalty fight, delivered a more toned-down response to the DOJ’s announcement. The former vice president simply appeared to share on social media a reworded portion of his criminal justice proposal from earlier in the week.

The quiet response might result from the fact that four of the men to be executed are on death row because of provisions existing in the 1994 crime bill that Biden authored as a senator. Prior to the law, there were only a certain number of federal offenses that were eligible for the death penalty. After Biden and his allies were done crafting the legislation, however, more than 60 new federal offenses were created under which the death penalty could be pursued as punishment. Among the list of new crimes were murders related to drug dealing, drive-by shootings, and the killing of a law enforcement officer, along with others.

As Vox has noted, the bill also included provisions making the death penalty eligible for “drug crimes that do not involve a homicide.” Under the new law, these crimes “could fall under three broad categories: homicide offenses, espionage and treason, and non-homicidal narcotics offenses.”

Because four of the men now facing execution were convicted after 1994, they received the death penalty because of such provisions in Biden’s law.

“These four prisoners, all of whom were convicted after 1994, were not convicted of murder while engaged in a criminal enterprise — therefore, they would not have been eligible for the death penalty if not for the 1994 anti-crime bill,” Vox reported.

It is unclear if Biden will acknowledge his role in putting the four men soon to be executed on death row in the first place. In the past, the former vice president has not shied away from defending his crime bill or boasting about its death penalty provisions.

“Let me tell you what is in the bill, and I’ll let you all decide whether or not this is weak,” Biden said during a speech on the Senate floor in 1992 when initially pushing the bill. “Let me get down here a compendium of the things that are in the bill. One, the death penalty. It provides 53 death-penalty offenses. Weak as can be, you know?”

“We do everything but hang people for jaywalking in this bill,” he added.

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