Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said Tuesday that he would support a national moratorium on lethal injections until the Supreme Court reviews the protocol used in a botched execution in Oklahoma last year.
In remarks at a National Press Club luncheon, likely one of his last public appearances before leaving office, Holder said the Justice Department has not completed the review of the death penalty that President Obama ordered last spring.
The review was initiated after an execution in Oklahoma in which an inmate convulsed on a gurney for an extended period and died after 43 minutes.
“The Supreme Court’s determination as to whether or not lethal injection is consistent with our Constitution is one that ought to occur,” Holder said after reiterating his personal opposition to the death penalty.
“I think a moratorium until the Supreme Court made that determination would be appropriate.”
Although Holder said the review would not be completed before he leaves office, he indicated that he hopes to make progress on a series of other issues as he winds down his six years as attorney general.
He said he has given his U.S. attorneys a 90-day deadline to come up with names of persons who could personally be charged with criminal or civil offenses stemming from the nation’s 2008 financial crisis.
Loretta Lynch, his successor if confirmed by the Senate, would have to decide whether criminal cases should be brought against any individuals.
Holder, who answered a wide range of questions from the audience about his policy and investigative decisions, declined to answer one. When asked whether the Obama administration has entered into any discussions at any time with former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden about the possibility of a plea deal in his case, Holder paused for a second.
“I will simply say no comment,” he said.
Snowden, who leaked a trove of intelligence documents, was criminally charged by the Justice Department under the Espionage Act but has been granted temporary asylum in Russia.
On the subject of terrorism, Holder took issue with those who have criticized the administration for not using the term “radical Islam.”
“We spend more time talking about what do you call it as opposed to what do you do about it,” Holder said. “You know, if Fox didn’t talk about this, they would have nothing to talk about, it would seem to me. You know, radical Islam, Islamic extremism, you know, I’m not sure an awful lot is gained by saying that.”
Most of Holder’s remarks were focused on his “Smart on Crime” initiative, which is aimed at reforming the criminal justice system.
Holder instructed federal prosecutors in August 2013 to avoid specifying the quantity of drugs involved when they charge nonviolent low-level drug offenders.
By withholding such information, they could avoid triggering long mandatory minimum sentences, which generally are determined by the quantity of drugs involved and limit the discretion of federal judges in sentencing.
The number of federal drug cases that were prosecuted in the last year dropped by 6 percent, according to preliminary figures, Holder said. During the same period, the number of drug cases in which federal prosecutors pursued mandatory minimum sentences dropped from about 64 percent to 51 percent.
“For years prior to this administration, federal prosecutors were not only encouraged — but required — to always seek the most severe prison sentence possible for all drug cases, no matter the relative risk they posed to public safety. I have made a break from that philosophy,” Holder said.
“While old habits are hard to break, these numbers show that a dramatic shift is underway in the mind-set of prosecutors handling nonviolent drug offenses. I believe we have taken steps to institutionalize this fairer, more practical approach such that it will endure for years to come,” Holder said.
At the end of Tuesday’s hour-long session, the moderator of the event noted a recent YouTube video showing Holder playing basketball.
He asked Holder to compare his skills with President Obama’s.
“I’m from New York City — the home of basketball players like Nate ‘Tiny’ Archibald, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius ‘The Doctor’ Erving, Connie Hawkins, you know, Chris Mullin,” Holder replied, smiling. “The president is from Hawaii.”