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Hundreds of victims’ relatives, ex-officials ask Trump administration to halt federal executions

President Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr at the White House in May. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Hundreds of relatives of murder victims, current and former law enforcement officials and former judges have signed letters urging the Trump administration to call off its plans to resume federal executions next month.

The letters, which are signed by current and former officials across the justice system as well as 175 people whose loved ones were slain, plead with President Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr to stop the executions.

These messages offer several explanations and requests. The relatives of murder victims — the largest single group to sign the letters — call for an end to the death penalty, denouncing the process as wasteful and something that only extends their grieving.

“We want a justice system that holds people who commit violence accountable, reduces crime, provides healing, and is responsive to the needs of survivors,” they write. “On all these measures, the death penalty fails.”

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Barr announced over the summer that the Trump administration would carry out the first federal executions since 2003, scheduling them to resume on Dec. 9. The move breaks with recent declines in both death penalty activity nationwide as well as public support for the practice.

“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,” Barr said in a July statement declaring that executions would resume. The Justice Department said five executions were scheduled for December and January and indicated that more would follow.

The letters asking Barr and Trump to stop the executions — intended to arrive at the White House and Justice Department on Tuesday — contain pleas from victims’ families as well as current and former prosecutors, police chiefs, attorneys general, judges and corrections officials, all citing their experiences and perspectives in arguing against resuming executions as scheduled.

Copies of the letters were shared with The Washington Post before they were submitted. A spokesman for the White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the letters and referred a reporter to Barr’s earlier statement announcing the resumption of executions.

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In one letter, current and former prosecutors and other law enforcement officials express fears about innocent people being convicted, the financial cost of death penalty cases and racial disparities.

“We are deeply concerned that the federal government plans to proceed with executions despite serious questions about the fairness and reliability of the system that condemned them,” they write.

The current and former officials — a group including some of the “progressive prosecutors” who won district attorney jobs after campaigning for criminal justice reforms — note that they include a mix of death penalty foes and supporters. Rather than calling for an end to capital punishment, they ask for “a comprehensive review of the system” before any federal executions can occur.

“It’s too big a risk and there’s nothing to be gained,” Jim Petro, a Republican and former Ohio attorney general who signed the letter, said in an interview.

Petro had supported capital punishment and, as a member of the Ohio legislature, worked on the state’s death penalty statute. Petro said that while he was attorney general, he oversaw 19 executions, watching most of them on a monitor from his office in Columbus.

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After leaving office, Petro said he turned against the practice, pointing to the risk of innocent people being convicted and the financial costs of death penalty cases. Petro said he understands that relatives of victims deserve to see perpetrators punished but said there are other ways to accomplish that.

“That individual has a right to see that justice is done,” he said. “But as we know, there are many states where there is no death penalty. There are many nations with no death penalty. We can’t say that . . . to mete out justice in that matter, we can’t say that it has to be death.”

Law enforcement officials who support capital punishment say sentences that are handed down should be carried out and argue that they owe victims’ relatives justice in death penalty cases.

While most states retain capital punishment, few carry out executions. Twenty-one states have abandoned the death penalty entirely, with nine doing so since 2007, a group that includes Illinois, Maryland and New Hampshire, which abolished it earlier this year.

In other states — including California and Pennsylvania — moratoriums are in place preventing executions. States still seeking to carry out executions, meanwhile, are encountering resistance from drug companies, which don’t want their products used for lethal injections.

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Executions have grown less frequent over the past two decades. States carried out 98 death sentences in 1999, a number that declined to 25 executions last year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

In the letter signed by murder victims’ relatives, they argue that the death penalty “exacerbates the trauma of losing a loved one,” wastes money, does not deter crime and, because of the appeals process that keeps the cases going, delays the healing process.

Gail Rice — whose brother, Bruce VanderJagt, was a Denver police officer slain in 1997 by a man who killed himself — said she became an active death penalty opponent after the loss. Rice, a letter signer, said her years working in prison and jail ministries showed her that justice is not fairly administered.

“I’ll be praying for them,” she said of relatives of victims in the cases that led to the scheduled federal executions. “I would certainly tell them . . . please don’t listen to judges or prosecutors or legislators that are going to tell you this is wonderful, it brings closure, it brings healing. Because believe me, it doesn’t.”

The message in the letter from victims’ relatives echoes a plea from Earlene Peterson, who has separately asked the Trump administration not to kill Daniel Lewis Lee, the first federal inmate scheduled to be executed. The Justice Department said Lee killed a family of three, among them an 8-year-old-girl and her mother — Sarah Powell and Nancy Mueller, Peterson’s granddaughter and daughter.

“I can’t see how executing Daniel Lee will honor my daughter in any way,” Peterson said in a video statement released last month. Peterson, noting that she voted for Trump and plans to do so again, said she wants the president to know: “I don’t want this to happen.”

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Peterson, who said she wants Lee to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, has been echoed by some of the slain pair’s other relatives, who argue that it was unfair he received the death penalty while an accomplice was sentenced to life in prison.

In another letter opposing the scheduled executions, dozens of former federal and state judges said that while they “do not all categorically oppose the death penalty,” all had concerns about the federal death penalty system and the Trump administration’s new execution procedure, which will involve using a single drug.

A letter signed by former corrections officials, including people who say they directly oversaw executions, expresses concerns about “the psychological toll” carrying out a death sentence can cause for correctional staff. They say their fears are exacerbated by the Trump administration’s decision to schedule multiple executions in a short time frame using the new protocol.

“To walk into a room and kill somebody, that is traumatic,” said Frank Thompson, a letter signer and former superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary who oversaw that state’s two executions in the modern era.

Thompson said that his work training staff for those executions changed him from a supporter of the death penalty into an opponent.

“I was training decent men and women in the process to take a life of another human being when we really didn’t have to do that, with life without the possibility of parole being available,” Thompson said.

He is also the relative of a victim in a death penalty case. Thompson said his cousin, Louis Bryant, an Arkansas state trooper, was shot and killed by a white supremacist who was later put to death. That execution was carried out in 1995, the year before Thompson oversaw his first execution in Oregon.

“I remember that feeling that justice was served,” he said. “But . . . as I speak to you now, there is no closure.”