Eric Holder Wants All Executions Put on Hold


Attorney General Eric Holder has called for a nationwide moratorium on the death penalty until the Supreme Court makes a decision on the constitutionality of certain lethal injection methods later this year, saying on Tuesday that he opposes capital punishment because he believes the odds of eventually making a mistake and executing an innocent individual are “inevitable.”

Here’s some of what Holder had to say at a luncheon at the National Press Club in Washington:

It is one thing to put somebody in jail for an extended period of time, have some new test that you can do and determine that person was, in fact, innocent. There is no ability to correct a mistake where somebody has, in fact, been executed. And that is, from my perspective, the ultimate nightmare…I think fundamental questions about the death penalty need to be asked. And among them, the Supreme Court’s determination as to whether or not lethal injection is consistent with our Constitution is one that ought to occur.

Holder, who stressed that he was speaking personally and not for the Obama administration, has voiced his opposition to the death penalty before. In November, the attorney general told the Marshall Project that there is always the possibility that a jury will sentence the wrong person to death. “We have the greatest judicial system in the world,” he said, “but at the end of the day it’s made up of men and women making decisions, tough decisions. Men and women who are dedicated, but dedicated men and women can make mistakes.”

The Supreme Court agreed last month to hear an appeal by death row inmates in Oklahoma who say the state’s lethal injection methods violate the Constitution. In April, the state botched the execution of 38-year-old Clayton Lockett, who reportedly writhed in pain after receiving a three-drug combination and died 43 minutes later. The court is expected to rule by the end of June.

As my colleague Stephanie Mencimer has reported, states are searching for new capital punishment methods after losing access to sodium thiopental, an anesthetic traditionally used in lethal injections. The only US manufacturer of the drug stopped producing it in 2011, while suppliers in Europe who object to the death penalty will no longer export it to the United States. In a bid to find other options, some states have used untested combinations or bought from unregulated compounding pharmacies, while lawmakers in Utah have even voted to bring back the firing squad for executions. In Ohio, lawmakers passed a “secret execution” law that exempts from public records searches the names of suppliers of lethal injection drugs.

Meanwhile, also on Tuesday, the Florida Supreme Court stayed the execution—scheduled for next week—of a death row inmate convicted of killing four people in Orlando in 1985, pending a decision from the high court.