Death row inmates await Biden's promise to end federal executions

Through notes passed under cell doors with string and conversations whispered through air ducts, death row prisoners in Indiana are debating whether Joe Biden will fulfill his campaign promise to halt federal executions.

Biden hasn’t spoken publicly about capital punishment since taking office four days after the Trump administration executed the last of 13 inmates at the penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, where federal death row inmates are held.

That six-month run of executions cut the unit from around 63 to 50. Biden’s campaign website said he would work to end federal executions, but he has not specified how.

On Monday the supreme court added to potential challenges confronting Biden on the matter, when it said it would consider reinstating the death sentence for the Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

The justices agreed to hear an appeal filed by the Trump administration. The initial prosecution and decision to seek a death sentence was made by the Obama administration, in which Biden was vice-president.

In emails with the Associated Press through a prison-monitored system they access in the two hours a day they are let out of their 12ft by 7ft cells, four death row inmates said Biden’s silence has them on edge, wondering if political calculations will lead him to back away from commuting their sentences to life or endorsing legislation striking capital punishment from US statutes.

“There’s not a day that goes by that we’re not scanning the news for hints of when or if the Biden administration will take meaningful action to implement his promises,” said Rejon Taylor, 36, who was sentenced to death in 2008 for killing an Atlanta restaurant owner.

Everyone on federal death row was convicted of killing someone, victims often suffering brutal deaths. The dead included children, bank workers and prison guards. One inmate, Dylann Roof, killed nine Black members of a South Carolina church during Bible study in 2015. Many Americans believe death is right for such crimes.

Views of capital punishment, though, are shifting. One report found people of color overrepresented on death row nationwide. Some 40% of federal death row inmates are Black, compared with about 13% of the US population. Support for the death penalty has waned and fewer executions are carried out. Virginia recently voted to abolish it.

The prisoners expressed relief at Donald Trump’s departure after he presided over more federal executions than any president in 130 years. The fear that guards will appear at cell doors to say the warden needed to speak to them – dreaded words that mean an execution is scheduled – has receded.

They described death row as a close-knit community. All said they were reeling from seeing friends escorted away for execution by lethal injection.

“When it’s quiet here, which it often is, you’ll hear someone say, ‘Damn, I can’t believe they’re gone!’ We all know what they are referencing,” said Daniel Troya, sentenced in 2009 in the drug-related killings of a Florida man, his wife and their two children.

The federal executions during the coronavirus pandemic were likely super-spreader events. In December, 70% of the inmates had Covid-19, some possibly infected via the air ducts through which they communicate.

The AP attended all 13 executions. Five of the first six inmates executed were white. Six of the last seven were Black, including Dustin Higgs, the final inmate put to death, on 16 January for ordering the killing of three Maryland women.

Memories of speaking to Higgs just before his execution still pain Sherman Fields, who is on death row in the killing of his girlfriend.

“He kept saying he’s innocent and he didn’t want to die,” Fields, 46, said. “He’s my friend. It was very hard.”

The easiest step for Biden would be to simply instruct the justice department not to carry out executions, though that would leave the door open for a future president to resume them. Inmates know Biden, while a senator, played a key role in passing a 1994 crime bill that increased federal crimes for which someone could be put to death.

“I don’t trust Biden,” Troya said. “He set the rules to get us all here in the first place.”

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