Trump reinstated federal executions after nearly 20 years, with three slated for this week. When will the U.S. drop the practice and join other Western nations?
By Donald Ayer, Deborah Gonzalez and Miriam Aroni Krinsky
If there’s one thing that has defined the final days of the Trump administration, it’s the lack of regard for human life. We saw that play out Wednesday after President Donald Trump incited rioters to bust through the U.S. Capitol and hunt down members of Congress.
Inciting a violent assault on the Capitol also displayed a disregard for democracy and the rule of law. This was the tragic finale of four years of failed federal leadership, and far from the only instance where the president’s disdain for human life has been demonstrated.
His abject failure to provide the leadership necessary to deal effectively with the COVID-19 pandemic is beyond dispute, with the consequence being that the daily death count from COVID-19 has now surpassed that of 9/11.
In the face of these unfolding tragedies, and at a time when the Trump administration appears literally to be coming unglued as more rats leave the sinking ship to avoid association with Wednesday’s debacle, another systematic disregard for human life seems to be rolling along on virtual autopilot.
Months ago, before former Attorney General William Barr made his own quick exit in a futile effort to save his reputation, he led the repeal of the de facto moratorium on federal executions. That has begun a process of periodic, deliberate killings inflicted by the government itself — indeed, by a lame-duck government that, after Wednesday, seems even to lack the consciousness or capacity to know what it is doing.
After 17 years without a single federal execution, the Trump administration has overseen 10 since July.
In 2020, for the first time in U.S. history, the federal government executed more people — in just six months — than all of the states combined. And this week alone, three people are scheduled to be put to death, despite ongoing legal challenges, including the first woman to face federal execution in nearly 70 years.
Unsurprisingly, these actions have furthered the already dangerous spread of the coronavirus in prisons. Eight members of the federal Bureau of Prisons team involved in the execution of Orlando Hall in November at the federal correctional facility in Terre Haute, Indiana, subsequently tested positive for COVID-19. The facility is experiencing an outbreak with hundreds of reported cases among individuals who are incarcerated.
Among those who have contracted COVID-19 are the two men scheduled to be put to death by the federal government this week, Cory Johnson and Dustin Higgs.
This administration’s lack of regard for human life is tragic and leaves the United States largely alone in the world. America was one of only 20 countries and the only advanced Western democracy to use the death penalty in 2019. Its application is riddled with racial bias. These decisions are also not error free.
Since 1973, at least 173 people on death row have been exonerated, while the National Academy of Sciences estimates that 4% of death row prisoners are innocent. This is a staggering rate of injustice for a sentence that is irreversible once administered.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only magnified concerns with our country’s use of the death penalty, making it impossible for many attorneys to effectively represent their clients, investigate last-minute leads, personally meet and discuss legal strategies or see their clients during critical final days.
A growing number of elected reform-minded prosecutors recognize the inhumanity and bias of the American death penalty and have committed to ending capital punishment. And in December, nearly 100 current and former criminal justice leaders issued a statement calling on the Trump administration to halt federal executions and commute the sentences of those on death row to life without parole. These prosecutors and law enforcement leaders recognize that “we have not executed the worst of the worst, but often instead put to death the unluckiest of the unlucky — the impoverished, the poorly represented, and the most broken.”
These observations are evident when one examines the individuals scheduled to be executed this week. Lisa Montgomery, who was set to be killed Tuesday, has a well-documented history of experiencing severe and incessant physical, emotional and sexual abuse from a very young age. Medical professionals have assessed that what she experienced amounted to years of torture. Late Monday, a judge granted a stay in the execution, citing the need to determine Montgomery’s mental competence, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported.
Similarly, Cory Johnson — scheduled to be executed Thursday — experienced extensive trauma and violence in his childhood, and his lawyers have pointed to his intellectual disability, never shared in court by his trial lawyers.
And Dustin Higgs — whose execution is scheduled for Friday — didn’t pull in the trigger in the murders for which he was convicted. The actual shooter wasn’t sentenced to death.
While they should be — and will be — held accountable for the heinous crimes they committed, taking their lives would say more about us as a society than it would about them. The death penalty represents the worst of us — revenge and cruelty — and does nothing to deter crime or make our communities safer. It is long past time to abolish capital punishment, once and for all. And Americans as well as states are increasingly embracing this reform and aligning with other Western democracies.
Let’s hope the Trump administration seizes this last chance to define its final days, at least as it relates to the death penalty, by the values of humanity, mercy and compassion, rather than base vengeance. We must restore our image in the eyes of world, not further tarnish it.
Donald Ayer served as a U.S. attorney and principal deputy solicitor general in the Reagan administration and as deputy attorney general under President George H.W. Bush.
Deborah Gonzalez is the district attorney for Georgia’s Western Circuit.
Miriam Aroni Krinsky is the executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution and a former federal prosecutor.
Originally published in the USA Today – reprinted with permission.
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