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.