Four More Federal Executions Set for December as Republicans Use Death Penalty as Partisan Tool


Courtesy of Picryl

As Donald Trump’s presidency dwindles to a whimpering close, he has authorized five federal executions in the last forty days of his lame-duck term. This unprecedented spree of executions appears to be the final effort from the Trump administration to carry out as many executions as possible. This hurried and bloodthirsty course of action is a stark departure from presidential decorum: President Obama never oversaw a federal execution and President W. Bush authorized just three. Since January 2017, nine Americans have been executed for federal crimes, more than during any other presidential term in over a century. These figures do not include Americans convicted and executed by state governments; the Federal Government can only issue capital punishment for about sixty offenses, almost all of which include aggravated murder.

Such executions often ignore nuances in specific cases that make the death penalty highly irresponsible. Brandon Bernard, who was executed in Terre Haute, IN on Thursday night, was just eighteen years old when he was convicted and sentenced to death. Bernard, though, was primarily an accomplice to the murder and was likely not personally responsible for any deaths on the night of the crime. The foreman of Bernard’s 1998 jury now discourages the federal government from going through with the execution due to complications in the case. Such issues in capital cases are not unique to Bernard’s trial: since 1973, more than 170 innocent Americans have been wrongfully executed.

The national debate around capital punishment reached a fever pitch in Gregg v. Georgia, a 1976 Supreme Court case that reinforced the court’s authorization of executions at the state and federal level. In that case, convicted murderer Troy Leon Gregg challenged his death sentence on the grounds that such convictions fall under the “cruel and unusual” punishment prohibited by the eighth amendment. Seven justices denied this claim, asserting that capital punishment can be issued by states in extreme circumstances. The Gregg decision, coupled with the court’s current conservative majority, makes it highly unlikely that the death penalty will be overturned on constitutional grounds under the eighth or fourteenth amendments. 

The Trump-era Republican Party supports the death penalty on the grounds that it adequately punishes the country’s most evil and dangerous criminals. According to Attorney General Bill Barr, “The Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.” However, it does not make much logical sense — or follow the GOP’s supposed “anti-snowflake” disposition — to suggest that emotion should influence sentencing and criminal procedure. The argument that capital punishment discourages prospective murderers is also inaccurate: a study published by the American Civil Liberties Union found that the death penalty does not deter crime more effectively than lifelong imprisonment. the GOP’s present stance on the death penalty is another groundless conservative hypocrisy. 

Additionally, the Republican position on capital punishment may have racial motivations. More than three-quarters of all citizens executed by the federal government since 1977 were people of color, as are more than half of all current death row inmates across the United States. In this same time frame, almost 300 Black Americans have been executed for murders of white people, while only 21 white Americans have been executed for murders of Black people. Numerous studies performed at the state level in the past quarter-century have found that Black defendants in capital cases are significantly more likely to receive the death penalty than their white counterparts. In a year in which prominent American Republicans have been apathetic and at times antagonistic to movements for racial justice, it is hard to believe that any of these arguments will compel DOJ officials to delay or commute executions.

The other four death row inmates scheduled to face execution this month have nuances in their cases as well. Alfred Bourgeois, who was sentenced to death in 2002 for abusing his two-year-old daughter for weeks before murdering her, is scheduled to be executed tonight in the same facility as Bernard. Bourgeois’ lawyers hold that his sub-70 IQ should shield him from the death penalty. Lisa Montgomery, who strangled a pregnant woman to death before cutting out and kidnapping the unborn child, is scheduled to be executed later this month. Her defense team holds that she suffered severe brain trauma as a child and suffers from lifelong mental illness. Cory Johnson murdered seven people in connection to his drug trading operation, but suffers from intellectual disabilities that some argue should have made him ineligible for the death penalty. The final defendant, Dustin John Higgs, ordered an accomplice to fatally shoot three young women following a kidnapping in 1996. After Higgs’ trial, his accomplice admitted that Higgs neither pressured nor forced him to pull the trigger.

In spite of evidence, ethics, and reason, the Trump administration will almost certainly go through with their four remaining federal executions. The recent rush of federal executions is yet another example of Republican leadership prioritizing law and order politics over morality and justice.