Trump presides over a spate of federal executions, including three in his lame-duck period

November 12, 2020 • 12:45 pm

Executions are prescribed by the laws of some states (25 out of 50, to be exact), but also by the federal government for federal crimes. The federal government can execute you if you commit more than 60 crimes, including treason, terrorism, espionage, using a weapon of mass destruction, first-degree murder, murder of government officials, some drug offenses, and so on.

Federal executions are much rarer than state ones: since 1977—43 years ago—there have been 37 federal versus 1453 state executions—a ratio of almost 40 to 1.

I’m opposed to state-sponsored killings for a number of reasons, one of the most important being that if someone is exonerated, you can’t make amends if he’s dead. In fact, I see not a single justification for state or federal governments killing someone, though I do see a need to put those carrying life sentences under more humane conditions, so although they’re deprived of their liberty and certain privileges, they can still live a reasonable life.

Of the 37 federal executions occurring since 1988 (about 1.2 per year), when these killings resumed after a 16-year court-ordered halt, seven have occurred after Donald Trump ordered a resumption of these killings—again on hiatus—in July of last year.

In other words, Trump has allowed executions to go forward since then at a rate of 5.6 per year—a roughly fourfold increase over the earlier rate. As a new story from The Independent notes (click on screenshot below), three more prisoners are scheduled to die between now and Christmas, making a total of ten federal executions on President-Eject Trump’s watch.

A stay of execution for federal crimes can be ordered by either the President or the Supreme Court, so it’s well within Trump’s power to stop the three killings scheduled before the end of 2020. But, determined to do as many odious things as possible before he does the exiting perp walk through the Rose Garden, he’s letting them go forward. Here’s who’s going to be killed, and when:

On 8 December the government plans to execute Lisa Montgomery, who will be the first woman federally executed since 1953.

She is a victim of sex trafficking who suffers from psychosis and complex Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, according to anti-death penalty advocates.

On 10 December they plan to put to death Brandon Bernard for the murder of a Texas couple in 1999, when he was 18.

The last time the US government executed a person as young as eighteen at the time of the crime was in 1952.

The third person to be executed during the “lame duck” period is likely to be Orlando Hall, a Black man sentenced to death by an all-white jury in 1994 for kidnapping, raping, and burying a 16-year-old girl alive in retaliation for a bad drug deal.

He never denied killing her, but his lawyers insist racial bias and remorse were not taken into account.

Now nobody’s arguing that these people shouldn’t be in the pen for life (though Montgomery, who may be mentally ill, might be confined in a hospital), but I am arguing that they shouldn’t be killed. And even if you believe in federal executions, the people have just chosen to replace Trump with Biden. Shouldn’t, then, Trump stay the executions, converting them to life without parole, in case Biden might pardon them? What’s to be lost by that? Were I Trump, I’d call Biden (this is not going to happen) and ask him what he would do. If Biden said, as is likely, “I’d stay their executions, or at least would look at them carefully” then Trump should stay them as well. What is to be lost by such an action?

Biden has, in the past, favored the death penalty, but his views appear to have softened in recent years. Other notable Democrats, including Kamala Harris, also oppose the death penalty, although, as a prosecutor, Harris  took some questionable actions given this view.

As the Independent reports, polls show that 56% of American favor the death penalty, but that’s dropped from 80% in 1994. Further, a Gallup poll from last year showed that 60% of Americans agree that life in prison without parole is a better punishment for murder than is the death penalty. And all three prisoners above are in jail for murder.

Like all civilized countries, America is ascending the moral arc towards ending state-sponsored executions. We can’t of course expect a narcissistic, authoritarian President to nudge America up this arc, particularly when his Republican base is so hungry for blood (nearly twice as many Republicans as Democrats favor the death penalty). But this truly is a matter of life and death, and it would be nice if Trump did the civilized thing and asked his successor.

h/t: dawn


30 thoughts on “Trump presides over a spate of federal executions, including three in his lame-duck period

  1. This is exactly what Trump and Trump voters want. More Federal executions. They view prisoners as basically welfare queens, living the easy life on the texpayer’s dime.

    Trump would televise the executions if he could.

      1. Jerry, your comment is clearly correct. However, I wonder what the public perception of the relative costs of the two outcomes might be.

        I have a series of objections to execution (not unlike your own), the first being that it doesn’t serve to reduce crime. Cost is another.

        That being said does any of Trump’s treasonous actions reach the level of the death penalty…..asking for a friend 🙂

        1. Yes, I think most Trumpers think “we should execute them as quickly as possible and that will save money.”

  2. I anticipate many similar acts of a desperate child getting revenge. Some acts may be much worse. There is the suggestion he may invoke a war against Iran. My guess is, if he tries, the generals will not cooperate.

    1. I do hope you’re right (about the generals).

      Aren’t we in a bizarre situation when we’re relying on the better judgement of people whose profession is waging war to prevent a pointless one?


  3. Just to keep things in perspective.

    The poor dear misunderstood Lisa Montgomery strangled to death a pregnant woman and cut her fetus from the dead woman’s womb.

    Brandon Bernard kidnapped and murdered two people, one by setting fire to a car while his victim, bound and conscious, was in the trunk.

    Orlando Hall’s crimes are detailed in the piece.

    FTR I am against the DP because our justice system isn’t about justice and so too many innocent people are convicted. But some people, like these three, deserve death.

    1. While the character is fictional, I think Tolkien got it right when he had Gandalf say:

      “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.”.

      1. Yes indeed. In case it isn’t clear, I don’t think these three should be put to death. But they DO deserve it. I would not shed a tear – I would instead dance a jig- if lightning were to strike them in their prison cells.

    2. They will get death event – we all do. In the meantime, they have a chance to reflect on their actions and repent – if they are unable to do that, then given the nature of their crimes they should probably be in a mental institution. Regardless i, the state killing people solves nothing.

  4. The death penalty is a relic of our religious past and present so it will likely be around for some time. It is interesting to review some of the old westerns like Gunsmoke, and see how quickly they used the penalty for crimes like stealing a horse. Stealing a horse would be the same as stealing a car today and hanging was the popular choice back then. Some day when religion really goes away there will be no more death penalty because the emotional necessity will go away.

    1. I think the death penalty will go away before religion, but I also think both will go away. If religion goes, as you said, so shall the death penalty. But like homosexual rights, religious people can remain faithful but modify their moral compass. So shall it be with he death penalty.

      1. Under the right circumstances, stealing a bottle of beer could amount to murder.

        Seems like a good premise for a crime novel.

  5. Rather than walk him through the beautiful Rose Garden, the officers should take him on a properly humiliating perp walk out the front door of the White House, through a peaceably assembled crowd of civilians in Lafayette Square, to a paddy wagon waiting in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. That would be poetic justice.

  6. Of the 37 federal executions occurring since 1988 (about 1.2 per year), when these killings resumed after a 16-year court-ordered halt, seven have occurred after Donald Trump ordered a resumption of these killings—again on hiatus—in July of last year.

    There have been just 10 federal executions carried out since the federal death-penalty statute was reinstituted in 1988. The first did not occur until 2001, when Timothy McVeigh was put to death for the Oklahoma City bombing. (This was the first federal execution carried out since 1963.) In addition to McVeigh, two additional federal prisoners — Juan Raul Garza and Louis Jones, Jr. — were executed during George W. Bush’s administration, in 2001 and 2003 respectively. All seven other federal executions have been carried out under Donald Trump since July 14th of this year. See here.

      1. Own the Libs and piss off the media — the two crucial goals of Trump and his cult, the measure “winning” that matters.

  7. I’m not going to cry for anyone that hacked a baby out of a still-living woman, burned someone alive, or buried a little girl alive. In fact, I’d rather they were hung, drawn, and quartered.

  8. I think you’re looking at this from the wrong end, professor. Remember that in Trumpworld the cruelty is the POINT: its the whole thing: the purpose, the method and the reward. Theirs is an amygdala based ideology.

    Ms. Harris was my least favorite of that crew (after poor, bonkers Marianne Williamson) b/c while I don’t know her death penalty opinions she was am enthusiastic and efficient generalissimo in the war on drugs. That’s a deal breaker in my book. Better than Toxic Orange, of course, but goodness: Where was Eliz Warren when they were giving out vice-presidencies?


    D.A., J.D., (fmr defense atty) NYC

  9. President-Eject T won’t even let staff deliver congratulatory mail be sent to President Elect Biden; don’t see T doing anything other than his standard rants.

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