A Pause in Federal Executions, but Uncertainty About What’s Next

President Biden’s Justice Department has ordered a moratorium on carrying out federal death sentences after a surge in executions under the Trump administration.

By Hailey Fuchs

The routine usually began around 5 p.m. Inmates could hear the door to death row open and the jangling of keys. A convict would be escorted away by the guards to hear the news from the warden: His execution date had been set.

Without going back to his cell, the condemned man would be led to a special block where he would spend his final days.

“You knew that they was coming to get someone,” recalled Julius Robinson, a former drug dealer who was convicted in 2002 of two murders and of involvement in a criminal enterprise that led to a third. Facing a death sentence himself, Mr. Robinson, who is held in the federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Ind., grew intimately familiar with the Federal Bureau of Prisons protocol for letting inmates know when their time had come.

“Once you hear that,” he said of that ominous activity on the cell block, “you know someone was getting the date.”

It was a pattern that played out regularly in the final months of the Trump administration, as the Justice Department, after a nearly two-decade informal moratorium on carrying out the federal death penalty, sped through 13 executions that extended into former President Donald J. Trump’s final week in office.

Without remaining appeals that could stand in the government’s way, Mr. Robinson was just as eligible for execution as any of those whose cases were selected by the Trump administration. A federal appeals court that reviewed his case in 2004 found that Mr. Robinson, “also known by names such as ‘Scarface,’ entangled himself in a sadistic world of narcotics and violence in which he personally committed at least two senseless murders.”

And few would have much sympathy for him or others awaiting execution. Polling suggests that most Americans favor capital punishment for murder even though they have doubts about whether it is applied fairly.

Speaking from a telephone in the special confinement unit — the Bureau of Prisons name for death row — he described the fraught atmosphere when the Trump administration was carrying out executions on a regular basis.

“You never knew if you was up next,” he said in an interview after Mr. Trump left office. “It’s all just luck of the draw.”

While many relatives of their victims continue to see capital punishment as justice and the issue remains as politically contentious as ever, for Mr. Robinson and the other roughly 45 men remaining on federal death row — child murderers and rapists among them — the election of President Biden offered some reprieve.

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