Last updated on: 9/20/2021 | Author:

Should the US President Commute the Sentences of Those on Federal Death Row?

General Reference (not clearly pro or con)

The Dictionary, available at, as accessed on Sep. 8, 2021, defines “Executive Clemency” as:

“The power of a President in federal criminal cases, and the Governor in state convictions, to pardon a person convicted of a crime, commute the sentence (shorten it, often to time already served) or reduce it from death to another lesser sentence. There are many reasons for exercising this power, including real doubts about the guilt of the party, apparent excessive sentence, humanitarian reasons such as illness of an aged inmate, to clear the record of someone who has demonstrated rehabilitation or public service, or because the party is a political or personal friend of the Governor.”

Sep. 8, 2021

The Death Penalty Information Center, in an undated article, “Federal Death Penalty,” available at and accessed on Sep. 20, 2021, stated:

“The federal death penalty applies in all 50 states and U.S. territories but is used relatively rarely. About 45 prisoners are on the federal death row, most of whom are imprisoned in Terre Haute, Indiana. Sixteen federal executions have been carried out in the modern era, all by lethal injection, with 13 occurring in a six-month period between July 2020 and January 2021.”

Sep. 20, 2021

The Justice Department, in a form updated on Nov. 23, 2018, “Commutation Instructions: Information and Instructions on Commutations and Remissions,” available at, stated:

“Under the Constitution, the President has the authority to commute sentences for federal criminal convictions, which are those adjudicated in the United States District Courts. In addition, the President’s clemency power extends to convictions adjudicated in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. However, the President cannot commute a state criminal sentence…

The President’s clemency power includes the authority to commute, or reduce, a sentence imposed upon conviction of a federal offense, including the authority to remit, or reduce, the amount of a fine or restitution order that has not already been paid. This form of clemency is different from a pardon after completion of sentence. Under the current regulations governing petitions for executive clemency, a person may not apply for a full pardon until at least five years after his or her release from incarceration…

A request for a commutation of a prison sentence generally is not accepted unless and until a person has begun serving that sentence. In addition, a commutation request generally is not accepted from a person.”

Nov. 23, 2018

PRO (yes)


A panel of 19 United Nations experts in a Mar. 11, 2021 article, “USA: UN Experts Call for President Biden to End Death Penalty,” available at, stated:

“The death penalty is an abhorrent practice. It serves no deterrent value and cannot be reconciled with the right to life…

We call on President Biden to urgently grant clemency to the 48 individuals currently on death row for federal crimes, most of whom have been on death row for a decade or more.

This should be only a first step. We further urge the President, as well as members of Congress, to strongly support legislative efforts to formally abolish the death penalty at federal level.

In the meantime, President Biden should consider all other possible federal-level actions including directing the Department of Justice to stop seeking the death penalty and withdrawing notices of intent to seek the death penalty in ongoing cases.”

Mar. 11, 2021


Elliot Williams, JD, CNN legal analyst and Former Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the Justice Department, in a Dec. 13, 2020 article, “The Death Penalty Confuses Vengeance with Justice, and It’s Time to End It,” available at, stated:

“Since [former US] presidents from both parties have failed to act, this is President-elect Joe Biden’s moment — particularly given his stated opposition to the death penalty as a candidate. Once he is sworn in on January 20, [2021,] the administration can put a moratorium on new decisions to seek death sentences. It can withdraw all pending decisions to seek the death penalty in ongoing cases. It can commute all current death penalty sentences to life in prison. (This last step is important; stopping short of commuting sentences merely kicks the can to future presidents.)”

Dec. 13, 2020


Cori Bush, US Representative (D-MO), in a Dec. 14, 2020 article, “Joe Biden Says He Opposes the Death Penalty. He Can Help End It with the Stroke of a Pen,” available at, stated:

“Under the Constitution, Presidents have the extraordinary power to shorten sentences and erase convictions altogether. It’s this same authority that Joe Biden should use when he becomes President on January 20. With the stroke of a pen, he can grant clemency to all who are on federal death row, reducing their sentences or pardoning them altogether.
For 17 years, federal executions were halted by previous administrations. For 17 years, not one life was taken. But for 17 years, families of those on death row fearfully waited for the moment that has come. In July 2019, the Trump Administration suddenly ended the moratorium on executions—rushing to take 13 lives before leaving office.

Joe Biden cannot leave the lives of those on death row in the hands of future presidents. If he truly opposes the death penalty, he must do everything in his power to stop it for good. Granting clemency to all on federal death row is his most effective tool.”

Dec. 14, 2020

CON (no)


Charles Stimson, JD, Acting Chief of Staff and Senior Legal Fellow of the Heritage Foundation, in a Dec. 20, 2019 article, “The Death Penalty Is Appropriate,” available at, stated:

“There are, to be sure, heartfelt arguments for people to be against the death penalty, not the least of which are religious, moral, or other reasons and beliefs. There are also valid arguments regarding the historical use of the death penalty against minorities, especially in the South.

Yet a majority of Americans, quite reasonably, support the death penalty in appropriate cases, and believe that, despite its imperfections, it is constitutional…

But for the death penalty to be applied fairly, we must strive to make the criminal justice system work as it was intended. We should all agree that all defendants in capital cases should have competent and zealous lawyers representing them at all stages in the trial and appeals process.

Any remnant of racism in the criminal justice system is wrong, and we should work to eliminate it. Nobody is in favor of racist prosecutors, bad judges or incompetent defense attorneys. If problems arise in particular cases, they should be corrected—and often are.

That said, the death penalty serves three legitimate penological objectives: general deterrence, specific deterrence, and retribution…

The third penological goal, retribution, is an expression of society’s right to make a moral judgment by imposing a punishment on a wrongdoer befitting the crime he has committed. Twenty-nine states, and the people’s representatives in Congress have spoken loudly; the death penalty should be available for the worst of the worst.”

Dec. 20, 2019


Donald Trump, 45th US President, in an Aug. 5, 2019 tweet stated:

“Today, I am also directing the Department of Justice to propose legislation ensuring that those who commit hate crimes and mass murders face the DEATH PENALTY – and that this capital punishment be delivered quickly, decisively, and without years of needless delay.”

Aug. 5, 2019


William Barr, JD, US Attorney General, in a July 25, 2019 press release, “Federal Government to Resume Capital Punishment after Nearly Two Decade Lapse,” available at, stated:

“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. Under Administrations of both parties, the Department of Justice has sought the death penalty against the worst criminals, including these five murderers, each of whom was convicted by a jury of his peers after a full and fair proceeding. 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.”

July 25, 2019