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Rep. Ayanna Pressley adds support for push to end death penalty but no sign Biden admin is on board

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Rep. Ayanna Pressley knew that abolishing the death penalty would not be an easy task. In fact, Pressley is aware that urging President Joe Biden to abolish the federal death penalty with a stroke of a pen would only be the beginning.

“We’re asking Biden to do something that’s never been done,” the Massachusetts Democrat told CNN in an interview Tuesday.

The Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act of 2021 — introduced along with Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin in July 2019 and reintroduced in January — calls for abolishing the death penalty, stopping the Justice Department from seeking the punishment for future cases and resentencing the now 49 men on death row to life without the possibility of parole.

“But ultimately, notwithstanding those things that can be done by executive action which would save lives, it really is essential that Congress pass legislation so that it fully ends the death penalty, codified it into law and prevent a future president for reinstating it down the line,” Pressley said.

The bill also calls for the destruction of the death chamber at the Terre Haute, Indiana, federal prison where 12 men and a woman were executed at a historic rate within the last seven months of Donald Trump’s only term as president.

Pressley’s bill initially received co-sponsorship from 12 Democrats, including the late Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings. As each death row inmate was scheduled to die, Pressley said more members of Congress signed on as endorsements from national and grassroots organizations trickled in.

As of Wednesday, 90 members of Congress — including the first Republican, Michigan Rep. Peter Meijer — have co-sponsored the bill and 265 organizations and businesses have shown their support, Pressley announced. The Republican co-sponsorship comes as Americans’ view of the death penalty have shifted over the last several years. In a 2019 Gallup survey, 60% of Americans said life imprisonment with no possibility of parole was a better penalty for murder than the death penalty — the first time a majority said that since Gallup started asking the question in 1985.

While Biden’s first 100 days have come and gone without him delivering on his campaign promise to end the death penalty, Pressley said she understands the administration has had other pressing priorities and is hopeful that the President will keep his promise — eventually.

CNN has reached out to the White House for comment.

Keeping the death penalty in the forefront

But Pressley said she’s capitalizing on her platform in Congress to fight for ending the death penalty because “People’s lives are in limbo right now.”

“This is about people’s lives, not just policy, it’s not just his campaign promise,” she said. “Dr. Angela Y. Davis reminds us that ‘social problems don’t go to jail, human beings do.’ I appreciate President Biden’s stated opposition to the death penalty, but people’s lives are in limbo right now,” she added, referring to the activist and author.

Pressley said that her “lived experience” as a child of a formerly incarcerated parent has made her want to be an advocate for the current and formerly incarcerated now that she’s a lawmaker.

“Policy is my love language,” Pressley told CNN. “I seek to replace punitive, oppressive systems with a system of liberation and healing,” she said, noting how “hurt and harm and trauma” have affected communities of color. “Its infliction has been legislated … And so, if policy can create hurt and harm, it can create equity, it can create healing, it can create justice.”

Through continued conversations with the Biden administration, writing letters, conducting panels, posting public service announcements, and hosting rallies with former death row inmates and their families, Pressley said she is keeping the conversation going.

She also noted that the House Oversight Committee’s subcommittee on civil rights and civil liberties, of which she is a member, is continuing the investigation into the medical cocktail used for federal and state executions.

“I’m confident that that investigation is going to yield results that also will bolster our case for ending the death penalty, especially on the state level,” Pressley said.

The two-term congresswoman said that during her conversations with death row inmates, she promises them that she is going to “fight for your life and the lives of everyone else on death row, like you are my own family.”

Prior to the execution of Brandon Bernard in December, his case caught the attention of celebrities, civil rights leaders and high-profile litigators who attempted to stop it from going forward. Pressley sent letters to Trump and former Attorney General William Barr urging them to reconsider his execution and four others, to no avail.

Pressley took a brief pause before reflecting on the fight to stop Bernard’s execution.

“I’m trying to find the words because I really thought we were going to save him,” she said. “That was a hard one for me.”

Article Topic Follows: National Politics

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