Federal Government to Resume Capital Punishment after Nearly Two-Decade Lapse

Death Penalty

Death Penalty

With more and more states moving to end the death penalty, the Trump administration is naturally moving in the other direction.  Attorney General William Barr has directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to adopt a proposed Addendum to the Federal Execution Protocol—clearing the way for the federal government to resume capital punishment after a nearly two-decade lapse, and bringing justice to victims of the most horrific crimes.

“Congress has expressly authorized the death penalty through legislation adopted by the people’s representatives in both houses of Congress and signed by the President,” Attorney General Barr said.

He added, “Under Administrations of both parties, the Department of Justice has sought the death penalty against the worst criminals, including these five murderers, each of whom was convicted by a jury of his peers after a full and fair proceeding.  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.”

The Federal Execution Protocol Addendum, which closely mirrors protocols utilized by several states, including currently Georgia, Missouri, and Texas, replaces the three-drug procedure previously used in federal executions with a single drug—pentobarbital.

Since 2010, 14 states have used pentobarbital in over 200 executions, and federal courts, including the Supreme Court, have repeatedly upheld the use of pentobarbital in executions as consistent with the Eighth Amendment.

Ruth Friedman, Director of the Federal Capital Habeas Project, called the notion that “the federal death penalty is ‘the gold standard’ of capital punishment systems” a “pervasive myth.”

She said that they claim it is being applied “only to the worst offenders for a narrow class of especially heinous crimes involving unique federal interests, with highly skilled and well-resourced lawyers on both sides.”

She added, however, that the federal death penalty “is arbitrary, racially-biased, and rife with poor lawyering and junk science. Problems unique to the federal death penalty include over-federalization of traditionally state crimes and restricted judicial review. These and other concerns, including troubling questions about the new execution protocol, are why there must be additional court review before the federal government can proceed with any execution.”

In a press release, the AG’s office announced five scheduled executions:

  • Daniel Lewis Lee, a member of a white supremacist group, murdered a family of three, including an eight-year-old girl. After robbing and shooting the victims with a stun gun, Lee covered their heads with plastic bags, sealed the bags with duct tape, weighed down each victim with rocks, and threw the family of three into the Illinois bayou.  On May 4, 1999, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas found Lee guilty of numerous offenses, including three counts of murder in aid of racketeering, and he was sentenced to death.  Lee’s execution is scheduled to occur on Dec. 9, 2019.
  • Lezmond Mitchell stabbed to death a 63-year-old grandmother and forced her nine-year-old granddaughter to sit beside her lifeless body for a 30- to 40-mile drive. Mitchell then slit the girl’s throat twice, crushed her head with 20-pound rocks, and severed and buried both victims’ heads and hands.  On May 8, 2003, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona found Mitchell guilty of numerous offenses, including first degree murder, felony murder and carjacking resulting in murder, and he was sentenced to death.  Mitchell’s execution is scheduled to occur on Dec. 11, 2019.
  • Wesley Ira Purkey violently raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl, and then dismembered, burned, and dumped the young girl’s body in a septic pond. He also was convicted in state court for using a claw hammer to bludgeon to death an 80-year-old woman who suffered from polio and walked with a cane.  On Nov. 5, 2003, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri found Purkey guilty of kidnapping a child resulting in the child’s death, and he was sentenced to death. Purkey’s execution is scheduled to occur on Dec. 13, 2019.
  • Alfred Bourgeois physically and emotionally tortured, sexually molested, and then beat to death his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. On March 16, 2004, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas found Bourgeois guilty of multiple offenses, including murder, and he was sentenced to death.  Bourgeois’ execution is scheduled to occur on Jan. 13, 2020.
  • Dustin Lee Honken shot and killed five people—two men who planned to testify against him and a single, working mother and her ten-year-old and six-year-old daughters. On Oct. 14, 2004, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa found Honken guilty of numerous offenses, including five counts of murder during the course of a continuing criminal enterprise, and he was sentenced to death.  Honken’s execution is scheduled to occur on Jan. 15, 2020.

They said, “Each of these inmates has exhausted their appellate and post-conviction remedies, and currently no legal impediments prevent their executions, which will take place at U.S. Penitentiary Terre Haute, Indiana.  Additional executions will be scheduled at a later date.”

The Death Penalty Information Center in a release points out: “The five cases involve prisoners from the death-penalty states of Arkansas, Arizona, Missouri, and Texas, as well as one from Iowa, whose state law does not authorize capital punishment.

“The federal death penalty is authorized for a variety of crimes that directly implicate federal interests, including terrorism and espionage,” the statement notes. “However, none of the prisoners who are the subjects of the five warrants were charged with such crimes, and only one of the 62 people on federal death row has been convicted of terrorism. No one on death row has been sentenced to death for a crime involving treason or espionage.”

Death Penalty Information Center Executive Director Robert Dunham said “merely saying that there is a legal protocol is not the same thing as having a legal protocol. Federal law is not made by executive fiat. You have to follow the rules.” Paul Enzinna, who represents James Roane and two other federal death-row prisoners in the lethal injection lawsuit told The National Law Journal the protocol “obviously will be subject to examination in our lethal injection litigation.”

California Governor Gavin Newsom condemned the action.

“The Trump administration has chosen to join North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Russia’s Putin in executing their citizens,” said Governor Newsom said in a statement.

He added, “The intentional killing of another person is wrong, and our death penalty system has been, by all measures, a failure. It has discriminated against defendants who are mentally ill, black and brown, or can’t afford expensive legal representation. It has provided no public safety benefit or value as a deterrent. It has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars. Most of all, the death penalty is absolute. It’s irreversible and irreparable in the event of human error.”

On March 13, Governor Newsom signed an executive order placing a moratorium on the death penalty in California and closed the execution chamber in San Quentin State Prison.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, “The federal death penalty was instituted in 1988. Three people have been executed under federal authority, with the last federal execution taking place in 2003.”

The last federal death warrant was issued for Bruce Webster on April 16, 2007.

However, Mr. Webster’s execution was stayed and his death sentence was subsequently vacated on June 28, 2019, when a federal district court judge found that Webster is intellectually disabled, making him ineligible for the death penalty.

DPIC said, “Critics of the federal death penalty argue that it is plagued by many of the same problems as state death-penalty systems, including racial bias (55% of defendants sentenced to death in the last decade were people of color), geographical arbitrariness (just three states – Virginia, Texas, and Missouri – are responsible for nearly half of all federal death-row prisoners), and disparities in the quality and funding of defense counsel.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Tia Will

    each of whom was convicted by a jury of his peers after a full and fair proceeding.”

    When evaluating the death penalty, I would like to remind everyone that these exact words would also have applied to the Central Park Five, all of whom were subsequently found to be factually innocent.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Is there any question in your mind that the five who are the subject of the current article, are ‘factually innocent’?  If you say “yes”, there might be a possible (not even going to ‘reasonable’) doubt as to their conviction while being ‘factually innocent’, I’ll leave this alone.

      I understand your concern as to concept, but am talking about real cases… horrendous cases…

      And many feel that LWOP is, actually, a ‘death sentence’… equally cruel… no chance for ‘cure’ or ‘redemption’ (another thread active as to ‘restorative justice’)…


      1. David Greenwald

        That’s an interesting question – do you know?  There is also the problem of inequity in the system – who gets the death penalty is an interesting analysis.

        1. Bill Marshall

          Is the reason they are not ‘sympathetic’ (based on the only pictures @ your cite/site) is that they are white males?  Just curious…

      2. Bill Marshall

        Not sure how “system inequities” affirm or negate specific actions, in specific cases… are all the 5 under discussion POC’s?  Any evidence that those 5 individuals were inequitably treated?

        Or are you working on the theoretical/philosophical level?  It’s obviously OK if you are, but clarity would be potentially useful…

        I suspect at least one of those convicted/executed @ Nuremberg were overcharged, or factually innocent… guess by that standard, not one should have paid with their lives.  Perhaps they should have been well fed, housed, received great medical treatment, until they died of old age… so they had ample time to consider whether they had acted as humans, and had time to participate in ‘restorative justice’.

  2. John Hobbs

    Great news!
    18 U.S. Code § 2381. Treason

    Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason and shall suffer death, or shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined under this title but not less than $10,000; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States.


    1. Bill Marshall

      Now if such a person swore (or affirmed) an oath “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States”, that would up the ante… particularly under the cited code…  Arte Johnson’s character… “Verrrry interesting… “

    1. Bill Marshall

      Read it… he was not executed, correct?  Has little/nothing to do with the 5 referred to in the article.

      If you are morally opposed to the death penalty, say it, own it.  But trying to use ‘back-door arguments’ is not honest.  Nor particularly effective.

      And, if you are morally opposed to the death penalty, after trials, appeals, etc., you should be morally opposed to using lethal force against an intruder in your home, holding a weapon and threatening your spouse and/or children… very similar… except in that context, there is no ‘competency hearing’, no arraignment, no jury of peers.  Guess that should be considered ‘murder’, carried out by an individual, not “the state”… and the State should severely punish you for that, right?  Particularly if your action was against a POC…

      We’re talking morally, not ‘legally’…

      And yes, was in a situation where I was fully prepared to use lethal force to protect a loved one… fortunately for both of us, he did not pull his 6-inch blade out of its sheath… butI was prepared to use lethal force to prevent death and/or injury…

      1. Bill Marshall

        Legally, I’d probably been justified… morally, not so confident… may you never find yourself in that type of situation… 40+ years ago, and still remember vividly the whole situation, and that I was fully prepared to use lethal force, and very possibly put another to death… no judge, no jury, no appeals, no competency hearing…

      2. David Greenwald

        In my view – trying to argue morality with people is futile. Everyone has their own view of right and wrong and you aren’t likely to change it, especially through argumentation. However, there are good reasons not support the death penalty regardless of whether you believe it is morally wrong or morally okay. The biggest in my view is that the justice system does not work. With few exceptions the people send to death row are poor and people of color. They are much more likely to get the death penalty if they kill a white person. And an extraordinarily high percentage of people – somewhere around 5 percent are exonerated from death row – meaning the system wanted to kill them even though they were innocent.

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