If all five go as planned, there will be 13 executions since July, when the Republican administration resumed executing prisoners after a 17-year hiatus and will cement Trump’s legacy as the most prolific executing president in more than 130 years. He will step down after executing about a quarter of all federal prisoners on death row, despite waning support for capital punishment among Democrats and Republicans.
In a recent interview with The Associated PressAttorney General William Barr defended extending executions into the post-election period, saying he will likely schedule more before leaving the Justice Department. A Biden administration, he said, should stay that way.
“It is difficult to understand why someone at this stage of a presidency feels compelled to kill so many people … especially when the American public voted for someone else to replace them and that person has said they oppose the death penalty,” Durham said. “This is a complete historical aberration.”
Since the last days of Grover Cleveland’s presidency in the late 1800s, the US government has not executed federal prisoners during a presidential transition, Durham said. Cleveland was also the last presidency during which the number of civilians executed at the federal level was in double digits in one year, with 14 executed in 1896.
Anti-death penalty groups want Biden to put more pressure to stop the wave of pre-inauguration executions, though Biden can’t do much to stop them, especially considering that Trump won’t even admit he lost the election and is spreading unsubstantiated claims. of electoral fraud.
The problem is uncomfortable for Biden given his previous support for capital punishment and his central role in crafting a 1994 crime bill that added 60 federal crimes for which someone could be executed.
Activists say the bill, which Biden has since agreed was flawed, puts pressure on him to act.
“He is acknowledging the sins” of the past, said Abraham Bonowitz, director of Death Penalty Action. “Now you have to fix it.”
Several inmates already executed on death row were convicted under the provisions of that bill, including some who committed kidnappings and vehicle thefts resulting in death for federal capital crimes.
The race of those who will die reinforces criticism that the bill disproportionately affected blacks. Four of the five who will die in the next few weeks are black. The fifth, Lisa Montgomery, is white. Convicted of killing a pregnant woman and cutting the baby alive, she is the only woman of the 61 inmates who were on death row when executions resumed, and she would be the first woman to be executed at the federal level in nearly six decades.
The executions so far this year have been carried out by lethal injection at a US penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, where all federal executions take place. The drug used to carry out the sentences is scarce. The Justice Department recently updated protocols to allow executions by firing squad and poison gas, though it’s unclear if those methods could be used in the coming weeks.
Concern about going ahead with executions amid a pandemic, as the Bureau of Prisons grapples with a growing number of virus cases in prisons across the country, increased further Monday when the Justice Department revealed that some members The execution team had tested positive for the virus.
Lawyers for two inmates at the prison complex made the disclosure in a court filing, saying they were informed by the Justice Department that some of the team members, among the nearly 100 people, are generally brought in to assist with various tasks during each execution. . – had tested positive for coronavirus after the last execution.
The spiritual advisor to the man who had been executed also presented court documents saying that he too had tested positive after attending the execution.
Critics have said that the restart of executions in an election year was politically motivated, helping Trump polish his claim that he is a law and order president. The option of first executing a series of white men convicted of killing children also seemed calculated to make the executions more acceptable amid protests across the country over racial prejudice in the judicial system. The first federal execution on July 14 was of Daniel Lewis Lee, convicted of killing an Arkansas family in a 1990s plot to build a white-only nation in the Pacific Northwest.
Barr has insisted that the reinstatement of federal executions was driven by law enforcement. He noted that under Democratic presidents, including Barack Obama, UUS authorities sought death sentences, they simply did not carry them out.
“I don’t feel like it’s a political issue,” Barr told the AP.
Trump has been a consistent supporter of the death penalty. In a 1990 Playboy interview, he described himself as a strong supporter of capital punishment, saying, “Either he will recover quickly or our society will rot.”
Thirty years later, not even the worsening pandemic has slowed his government’s determination to go ahead with the executions, rejecting repeated calls to freeze the policy until the pandemic eases.
Many states with death penalty laws have halted executions out of concern that the rampant spread of the coronavirus in prisons would put attorneys, witnesses and executioners at too great a risk. Largely as a consequence of health precautions, states have executed just seven prisoners in the first half of the year and none since July. Last year, states carried out a total of 22 executions.
The expectation is that Biden will end the Trump administration’s policy of carrying out executions as quickly as the law allows, although his long-term focus is unclear.
Durham said that while Obama imposed a moratorium on federal executions, he left the door open for future presidents to resume them. Obama, for whom Biden served as vice president, never employed the option of commuting all federal death sentences to life sentences.
As president, Biden could try to persuade Congress to abolish the federal death penalty or simply invoke his commutation powers to single-handedly convert all death sentences to life sentences.
“Biden has said that he intends to end the federal death penalty,” Durham said. “We will have to wait and see if that happens.”
– Reported with Associated Press