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Death penalty plans moving ahead

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is plowing ahead with its plan to resume federal executions next week for the first time in more than 15 years, despite the coronavirus pandemic raging both inside and outside prisons and stagnating national support for the death penalty.

Three people are scheduled to die by lethal injection in one week at an Indiana prison, beginning Monday. Bureau of Prisons officials insist they will be able to conduct the executions safely and have been holding practice drills for months.

Family members of the victims and the inmates will be able to attend but will be required to wear face masks. Prison officials will take temperature checks. The agency will also make personal protective equipment, including masks, gloves, gowns and face shields, available for witnesses, but there are no plans to test anyone attending the executions for COVID-19, officials said.

The decision to go ahead with the executions has been criticized as a dangerous and political move by an administration that at times seems disinterested in addressing racial disparities in the death penalty and larger criminal justice system. Critics argue the government is instead creating an unnecessary and manufactured urgency around a topic that isn’t high on the list of American concerns right now, when more than 130,000 people have died of the coronavirus in the United States and the unemployment rate is 11%.

“Why would anybody who is concerned about public health and safety want to bring in people from all over the country for three separate execution in the span of five days to a virus hot spot?” questioned Robert Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonpartisan organization that collects information on capital punishment.

“The original execution plan last year appeared to be political. And the current plan eliminates any doubt about that,” he said.

Attorney General William Barr has denied that politics played a role in the decision last year to resume executions, which ended an informal freeze on imposition of federal capital punishment. Barr has said the government has an obligation to carry out the sentences, including the death penalty, that are imposed by courts, and that the Justice Department owes it to the families of the victims and others in their communities to do so.

“The American people, acting through Congress and Presidents of both political parties, have long instructed that defendants convicted of the most heinous crimes should be subject to a sentence of death,” Barr said in a statement last month.

But before the pandemic, the economy and health care were Americans’ top priorities for the government to work on in 2020, with 59% and 50% naming the two, respectively, in an open-ended question in an Associated Press-NORC poll from December. Some 35% said immigration was one of the most important issues the government should work on in 2020, and about as many referenced politics or partisan gridlock.

The percentage of Americans in favor of the death penalty stood at 60% in the 2018 General Social Survey, a long-running trends survey.

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