NOEL KING, HOST:
Attorney General William Barr is effectively clearing the way to resume capital punishment in the federal prison system. In an announcement this morning, the Justice Department says it wants to resume executions as early as this December.
NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is with me now. Hi, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.
KING: So what is in this announcement, and how soon is it expected to start?
JOHNSON: The attorney general, Bill Barr, is directing the Bureau of Prisons to relaunch the process of executing inmates on federal death row. Barr says the Justice Department upholds the rule of law and that we owe it to victims and their families to carry through on these federal death sentences.
KING: The Justice Department has identified five inmates we know that it wants to set execution dates for. So they're currently in the federal system. They've exhausted their appeals. What do we know about these five people?
JOHNSON: For starters, Noel, Bill Barr says some of these executions could begin as early as December. December 11 is the first day. There are other dates in December continuing into January 2020.
Bill Barr identified five inmates for priority execution. All of them are murderers, he says. Most of them have targeted, in his view, the most vulnerable - that is, elderly or young people - as their victims. One of them is a member of a white supremacist group who murdered a family of three, including an 8-year-old girl. Another stabbed a grandmother and forced her granddaughter to sit beside the grandmother for a lengthy drive. Other gruesome facts along the way in these cases.
And Bill Barr says, as you mentioned, that these inmates have exhausted their appeals, so he believes the way could be cleared as early as December to execute them.
KING: You've been covering the justice system for a long time. How unusual is it to execute prisoners in the federal prison system?
JOHNSON: Noel, it's really unusual. There's something like 60 people on the federal death row. But the last execution on federal death row was in 2003 for a man named Louis Jones Jr. He was convicted of murdering an Army private. And before that, in 2001, Timothy McVeigh, the convicted Oklahoma City bomber from 1995, was executed.
There haven't been many executions in the federal system in my time on the beat, although there have been some new admissions. You'll remember in 2015, a jury sentenced Jahar Tsarnaev, one of the Boston Marathon bombers, to a federal death sentence.
KING: But between 2003 and now, Carrie, has it been a policy to not execute people? Because this seems as if we're making announcement that they will resume. Was there a moment in which someone said they're going to stop?
JOHNSON: There have been problems along the way, chief among them that the federal system used a three-drug cocktail for most of its executions. And there have been shortages for at least one of those drugs. What the attorney general, the new attorney general, Bill Barr, says is that he wants the federal system to adopt a drug protocol that other states have adopted. That's just one drug, not three, and that he says that federal appeals courts and lower federal courts have upheld the use of this drug, saying it is not cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.
KING: OK, so we are talking about the federal prison system. Does today's announcement mean anything for those in prisons in individual states?
JOHNSON: You know, it's so interesting, Noel, because just in the last several days, Bill Barr's Bureau of Justice Statistics, which he's in charge of as the head of the Justice Department, has reported yet another overall decline in death sentences across the country, not just federal ones, but across the states. There have been something, like, declines for the last 17 years. In fact, the BJS says it usually takes something like 20 years for somebody to be executed from the time of the sentence to the time of the execution in the state. So sometimes, they die of natural causes on death row, not in a federal execution or state execution.
KING: NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks so much.
JOHNSON: Happy to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.