The amended rule was entered into the Federal Register on Friday, permitting the government “greater flexibility” to carry out capital punishment using any method “prescribed by the law of the state in which [a] sentence was imposed.” While lethal injection remains the most common means of execution – and previously the only one permitted under federal regulations – the new rule will accommodate states that allow for alternative methods, including death by electrocution, nitrogen gas, hanging or firing squad.
The proposed rule change was initially floated in August – with the DOJ accepting public comments for only 30 days, half of the period typically allotted – and passed a White House review earlier this month, according to ProPublica, which was first to report on the amended regulation.
While five federal prisoners are currently slated for execution before President Donald Trump leaves office in late January, the rule change is not expected to affect their cases, as each is already set to receive lethal injection.
Before Trump took power, the last federal execution was carried out in 2003 – that of Louis Jones, convicted of murder and kidnapping – but the current administration has revived the custom. The government has authorized capital punishment for 13 inmates so far in 2020, including the five still in custody, all of them approved in the last six months. Though state governments routinely sentence inmates to death each year, executions have been far more rare on the federal level, seeing a total of just 45 since 1927, according to the Bureau of Prisons.
Presumptive president-elect Joe Biden has vowed to end capital punishment for federal crimes, saying his administration will not approve any executions, meaning Friday’s rule change may never be put into practice. That stance reflects growing calls from fellow Democrats to abolish the death penalty outright, arguing the practice is cruel and archaic.
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