Attorney General Merrick Garland has put the death penalty on pause. But President Biden has pledged to end capital punishment. So why just a pause?

This week’s announcement that the Justice Department would institute a moratorium on federal executions induced whiplash, given that only last month government lawyers asked the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the death sentence of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Critics of that decision were rightfully indignant: Mr. Biden promised as a candidate to eliminate the death penalty altogether, and voters likely expected he would undo his predecessor’s resumption of capital punishment — which resulted in a rushed and unprecedented 13 killings in the last days of President Donald Trump’s term. Instead, the White House seemed to be encouraging one killing more.

This incongruity now has been resolved. Yet another mismatch remains. The Justice Department’s moratorium exists pending a review of whether the drug approved for federal executions poses risks of suffering, as well as a review of a rule change last November expanding the permissible methods of execution beyond lethal injection to include nitrogen gas, electrocution and firing squad. The previous administration also stopped the Food and Drug Administration even from regulating lethal injection drugs.

Certainly, flawed and painful modes of execution make a cruel and unusual punishment crueller still. But that should be beside the point. Killing by government is immoral, ineffective and unpopular. It also has been applied in a racist manner, with respect to the race of both victims and perpetrators. Today, Black Americans make up 13 percent of the population but 40 percent of federal death row prisoners. Those executed tend to be the poorest, the sickest, the most traumatized and the least capable of defending themselves. Some are also innocent, as Mr. Biden himself pointed out in his anti-capital punishment campaign agenda: At least 160 individuals sentenced to death in this country have later been exonerated.

We’ve supported in the past some politicians’ position that despite any personal objection to the death penalty, they will enforce the law. But Mr. Biden was elected after clearly stating his views to the American people, and the law gives him the power to commute sentences to life without probation or parole. While Mr. Biden should work with Congress to eradicate the possibility of federal executions going forward, he can eradicate federal executions for those living today with the sentence looming over them. The American people gave him a mandate to get out of the business of state-sponsored killing — not merely to press the pause button.

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