WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama declared this week’s botched execution in Oklahoma “deeply disturbing” and directed the attorney general Friday to review how the death penalty is applied in the United States at a time when it has become increasingly debated.
Weighing in on a polarizing issue that he rarely discusses, Obama said the Oklahoma episode, in which a prisoner remained groaning in pain after sedatives were apparently not fully delivered, underscored concerns with capital punishment as it is carried out in America today. While reiterating his support for the death penalty in certain cases, Obama said Americans should “ask ourselves some difficult and profound questions” about its use.
Within hours, the Justice Department outlined a relatively narrow review focused on how executions are carried out rather assessing the entire system. But given Obama’s broader comments, supporters and opponents wondered whether he might be foreshadowing an eventual shift in position by the time he leaves office, much as he dropped his opposition to same-sex marriage in 2012.
“In the application of the death penalty in this country, we have seen significant problems — racial bias, uneven application of the death penalty, you know, situations in which there were individuals on death row who later on were discovered to have been innocent because of exculpatory evidence,” Obama told reporters. “And all these, I think, do raise significant questions about how the death penalty is being applied.”
Whether Obama’s concerns lead to policy proposals remained far from certain, but the administration review comes at a time when the use of the death penalty has begun to recede in the United States. The number of executions has fallen by half since its modern peak in 2000, while a half-dozen states have abolished capital punishment over the past seven years and others have imposed moratoriums or are exploring legislation to repeal it.
The federal government has effectively imposed its own moratorium on carrying out executions since 2010 while trying to figure out issues surrounding the drug cocktail commonly used for lethal injection. The Justice Department said Friday that it would build on that assessment.
“At the president’s direction, the department will expand this review to include a survey of state-level protocols and related policy issues,” said Brian Fallon, a department spokesman.