WASHINGTON — The U.S. government will execute federal death row inmates for the first time since 2003, the Justice Department announced Thursday, bringing back a seldom-used punishment pushed by President Donald Trump and escalating another divisive issue ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
Five inmates who have been sentenced to death are scheduled to be executed starting in December — all within a six-week period. By comparison, there have been only three executions since the federal death penalty was restored in 1988 and only 37 overall from 1927 to 2003.
In 2014, following a botched state execution in Oklahoma, then-President Barack Obama directed the department to conduct a review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal injection drugs.
That review has been completed, the department said, and it has cleared the way for executions to resume.
In a statement, Attorney General William Barr said 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 approved a new procedure for lethal injections that replaces the three-drug cocktail previously used in federal execution with a single drug, pentobarbital. This is similar to the procedure used in several states, including Georgia, Missouri and Texas.
Though there hasn't been a federal execution since 2003, the Justice Department has continued to approve death penalty prosecutions and federal courts have sentenced defendants to death.
There are 61 people on the federal death row, according to Death Row USA, a quarterly report of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Some of the highest-profile inmates on federal death row include Dylann Roof, who killed nine black church members during a Bible study session in 2015 at a South Carolina church, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who set off bombs near the Boston Marathon's finish line in 2013, killing three people and wounding more than 260.
The decision to resume carrying out the death penalty is likely to magnify an issue already debated in the Democratic primary and create a flashpoint between that party's nominee and Trump in the general election.
Most Democrats oppose capital punishment. Former Vice President Joe Biden this week shifted to call for the elimination of the federal death penalty after years of supporting it. The lone Democratic White House hopeful who has publicly supported preserving capital punishment in certain circumstances is Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who has said he would leave it open as an option for major crimes such as terrorism.
By contrast, Trump has spoken often — and sometimes wistfully — about capital punishment and his belief that executions serve as both an effective deterrent and appropriate punishment for some crimes, including mass shootings and the killings of police officers. All five scheduled to be executed starting in December were convicted of killing children.
"I think they should very much bring the death penalty into vogue," Trump said last year after 11 people were gunned down in a Pittsburgh synagogue.
He's suggested repeatedly that the U.S. might be better off it adopted the kind of harsh drug laws embraced by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, under whom thousands of drug suspects have been killed by police.
Trump was a vocal proponent of the death penalty for decades before taking office, most notably in 1989 when he took out full-page advertisements in New York City newspapers urging elected officials to "BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY" following the rape of a jogger in Central Park. "If the punishment is strong," he wrote then, "the attacks on innocent people will stop."
Five Harlem teenagers were convicted in the Central Park case but had their convictions vacated years later after another man confessed to the rape. More than a decade after their exoneration, the city agreed to pay the so-called Central Park Five $41 million, a settlement Trump blasted as "outrageous."
About 6 in 10 Americans favor the death penalty, according to the General Social Survey, a major trends survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago. While a majority continue to express support for the death penalty, the share has declined steadily since the 1990s, when nearly three-quarters were in favor.
The first inmate scheduled to be executed — on Dec. 9 — is Danny Lee, who was convicted of killing a family of three, including an 8-year-old girl, in 1996, and stealing guns and cash in a plot to establish a whites-only nation in the Pacific Northwest.
The others include Lezmond Mitchell, who prosecutors say stabbed a 63-year-old grandmother to death and then forced her 9-year-old granddaughter to sit beside her grandmother's lifeless body as he drove about 40 miles, before slitting the girl's throat. Their beheaded, mutilated bodies were found in a shallow grave on a Native reservation. He's scheduled to be executed two days after Lee.
The Bureau of Prisons plans to execute Wesley Ira Purkey on Dec. 13. He was convicted of raping and killing a 16-year-old girl before dismembering, burning and then dumping the teen's body in a septic pond. Prosecutors said he was also convicted in a state court in Kansas after using a claw hammer to kill an 80-year-old woman who suffered from polio.
Prosecutors say another one of the inmates, Alfred Bourgeois, tortured, molested and then beat his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter to death.
The final inmate scheduled to be executed, Dustin Lee Honken, was convicted in 2004 in connection with the killings of five people as part of a plan to thwart a federal investigation into his drug operation. They included two men who became informants and were going to testify against him, the girlfriend of one of the informants and her two young daughters.
All five will be executed at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Attorneys for each of the men did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Thursday.
The federal government would join eight states that have executed inmates or are planning to do so this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Texas is far and away the leading state when it comes to using the death penalty, with 563 executions since capital punishment resumed in the U.S. in 1977 after a 10-year pause.
In the past 20 years, the Supreme Court has banned the execution of people who are intellectually disabled or were under 18 when they killed someone. But even as the number of people who are sentenced to death and are executed has declined steadily for two decades, the justices have resisted any wholesale reconsideration of the constitutionality of capital punishment.
The five-justice conservative majority that includes Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, Trump's two high court picks, has complained about delaying tactics employed by lawyers for death row inmates.
The most recent federal execution occurred in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of a female soldier.
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin, Mark Sherman, Elana Schor and Hannah Fingerhut contributed to this report.