Donald Trump left the White House with yet another distinction, which further confirms him to be the worst President in modern history. He is the only President in 17 years who has authorized federal executions. Trump’s DOJ ordered executions for thirteen people who have been on death row for 20 years or more. No president in the last 120 years has overseen as many Federal executions. And not since 1896 has more Federal executions been performed in one year. From July 2020 up to five days before Joe Biden took office, Trump’s DOJ pushed these executions through.
In July 2019, AG William Barr and the president cynically resumed federal execution as a campaign tactic to shore up Trump’s bona fide of being tough on crime. Barr’s decision on who he would send to the death chamber was based on his characteristics of the victims and those who he believed would resonate emotionally with the public.
The thirteen individuals executed included those with learning disabilities and undiagnosed mental illness. Some had been on death row since they were teenagers. Six were white males, six Black males, and one was a white female. Their ages ranged from thirty-eight to sixty-eight.
Capital punishment began in Southern states as a means of controlling Black people from harming white people. According to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), “the death penalty in America is a direct descendant of lynching. Racial terror gave way to executions in response to criticism that torturing and killing black people for cheering audiences was undermining America’s image and moral authority on the world stage.”
EJI also says that “the American death penalty is a flawed, expensive policy, defined by bias and error. It targets the most vulnerable people in our society and corrupts the integrity of our criminal justice system. It treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent”. For every nine people executed, one person on death row has been exonerated.
Death penalties are arbitrarily imposed by State or District Attorneys. They are disproportionately given to Black and poor people. Today 42% of all inmates on death row are African American, and 75% of executions for murder were in cases with white victims.
Mental health experts estimate at least 20% of people on death row today have a serious mental illness. At least 10% of the people currently sentenced to death nationwide are military veterans, many of whom suffer from documented trauma disorders.
In 1972 the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty because it looked too much like vigilante justice. In 1976, the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment so long as it is imposed only on people who “deserve” it. The Court has since barred the death penalty for certain groups of people who are not culpable enough to “deserve” execution.
Not only did the Trump DOJ resume executions, they created a super Covid-19 spreader. From December 2020 to January 7, 2021, 657 inmates and 70 staff persons tested positive for the virus at the Terra Haute Federal Correctional Center. The Bureau of Prisons failed to enforce mask-wearing, neither did they reform rapid testing of their staff or visitors who entered the prison grounds. After a staff member involved in the executions tested positive for Covid19, no contact tracing was performed.
Cassandra Stubbs, Director of the Capital Punishment Project for the ACLU stated, “The federal government’s reckless push to execute an unprecedented number of people during this pandemic has inexcusably spread serious illness and death.”
Advocates against the death penalty believe that the outbreak of Covid-19 at Terra Haute Prison occurred from the executions on December 10th of Brandon Bernard and the December 11th execution of Alfred Bourgeois.
Despite of the Covid-19 outbreak, Donald Trump’s Justice Department carried out the execution of Lisa Montgomery on January 13th. Montgomery was the first woman to be executed by the Federal government in 70-years, and only the third since 1900.
The DOJ had also scheduled two more executions for January 13th and 14th. Both of the inmates, Cory Johnson and Dustin Higgs, had tested positive in December for Covid-19.
On January 12th, a Federal court had ruled that executing the men, while recovering from the virus was a violation of the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment and postponed the executions until the middle of March. In a 6-3 ruling, the US Supreme Court overruled the lower court’s stay.
Justice Sotomayor wrote in her dissent, “This is not justice. To put that in historical context, the Federal government will have executed more than three times as many people in the last six months than it had in the previous six decades. There can be no ‘justice on the fly’ in matters of life and death.”
Justice Breyer noted that the lower court judge held that Higgs had significant lung damage and executing him by injection of pentobarbital would “subject him to a sensation of drowning akin to waterboarding” because of his Covid-19 infection. Breyer said the court needed to address a myriad of questions, including whether the government’s protocol risks extreme pain and needless suffering.
In the Federal prison system, there are 52 individuals still left on death row. Opponents of the death penalty system are requesting that the Biden Administration commute all 52 inmates with death sentences to life in prison.