Precisely one week before Thanksgiving, Orlando Hall became the eighth person incarcerated in federal prisons to be executed this year after Attorney General William Barr lifted a 17-year ban on the federal government’s implementation of the death penalty. When Hall, 49, was killed by lethal injection, he became the first person that a lame-duck administration has executed in more than 100 years.
This wasn’t some sort of scheduling happenstance, caused by a rapid succession of appeals that pushed Hall’s date down the calendar. No, his date quickly followed the killing of Christopher Vialva in late September, and Barr has scheduled five more before Biden is inaugurated as president. His Department of Justice just concluded that there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud, which we all knew — but Barr clearly realized weeks ago that he and the president would be out of a job come January 20th. Why else would they have started scheduling executions, rushing to kill those who are incarcerated on the federal government’s death row? Perhaps because these prisoners might be otherwise spared under President-elect Biden, who wants to eliminate the death penalty?
And whose lives are Trump and Barr in such a rush to end? Brandon Bernard was Vialva’s accomplice, and a teenager at the time of his crime. Also on the list are Alfred Bourgeois, Cory Johnson, Dustin John Higgs, and Lisa Montgomery — who will become the first woman to be executed by the United States in nearly 70 years. Similarly, Bernard, now only 40, will become the youngest to be put to death in the same time frame.
All of them, along with Hall, are accused and were convicted of offenses that are utterly horrific and almost beyond description. But now Donald Trump and William Barr will be killing in our name, with our resources. The election rejected their values, so this only makes the killing spree more abhorrent. But why did we give them, or any other administration, that power in the first place?
Trump’s lack of regard for human life throughout his presidency has provided ample evidence that giving him the authority to kill prisoners is a bad idea. He provided more, though, when he authorized a new rule in late November to vastly expand the manner in which the federal government can carry out death sentences. Thanks to the fact that lethal-injection drugs have been notoriously difficult to obtain in the 22 remaining states in which the penalty is still legal, a select few of them — such as Mississippi and Oklahoma — have kept some rather anachronistic methods on the books, even if they, in some cases, have never used them. We’re talking about hanging, firing squads, electrocution, and even the gas chamber. Trump’s ludicrous rule allows the federal government to use those methods should the drug supply run dry.
While execution by lethal injection may be considered the most humane of methods, political scientist Austin Sarat wrote in his book Gruesome Spectacles that more than 7 percent of such attempts have been botched — perhaps most horrifically in 2014, when Oklahoma officials gave Clayton Lockett an untested cocktail of drugs that essentially tortured him over the course of 43 minutes.
I realize that some of you may say, “So what? Let them suffer!” We think ourselves moral giants compared to these murderers, even as we vote in people to take their lives on our behalf. Few public policies reflect the national character, if there is such a thing, like the death penalty, simply because of the action it requires. And this mob justice en masse is laundered, for the sake of our consciences, through a legal system fraught with systemic inequities that have plagued Americans who are not white, who are disabled, and who are poor.
That is what Trump himself consciously refused to recognize when he published his full-page ad in the wake of the Central Park jogger attack in 1989, implicitly condemning the five wrongly arrested teens and calling for the return of New York’s death penalty. Writing that he was not “looking to psychoanalyze or understand” the criminals he’d spend hundreds of words railing against, the real-estate playboy gave us an early warning of why he should never be entrusted with the power to put anyone to death. “I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. They must serve as examples so that others will think long and hard before committing a crime or an act of violence.”
I know this may be difficult to believe, but Trump was wrong about this. Studies and statistics over the course of decades have proven that the death penalty hasn’t been proven to be a deterrent for those who might be prone to commit homicides or other crimes that might be subject to that sentence. It doesn’t reduce crime. In fact, its presence makes things worse, and removing it improves overall safety. One international study from 2018 found that 10 of 12 countries experienced a decline in murder rates following the abolition of capital punishment. However, states here in the U.S. that permit executions experience higher rates of homicide than those that do not. The causal factors, either way, haven’t been fully determined — but what seems clear is that retribution sells better politically when murder rates are higher. That seems to feed the problem. But the burden of proof should be on officials and law enforcement to prove that capital punishment actually works, not that it feels good.
Another negative aspect has to do with how with how the death penalty, in effect, endorses state violence. Trump has exacerbated this, embracing the line of murderous strongmen like Rodrigo Duterte — the Philippine president who has conducted the extrajudicial killings of drug dealers. But even back here in the States, police violence and hate crimes against black and Hispanic people have spiked during the Trump presidency. When the president speaks of justice and accountability only within the scope of revenge and advocates for the death penalty, we not only will see people follow his lead. We’ll see that death penalty carried out on the streets, by police officers.
I can’t say whether the actions Trump and Barr are taking now, in this lame-duck period, will contribute to a greater overall American desensitization to death. I’m unsure how much more numb we all could get to it, given that we’re nearing 9/11 death tolls on a daily basis from Covid-19. There are bodies still waiting in freezer trucks from March while folks run around without masks, congregate for superspreader weddings and swingers’ parties, and jet off so they can eat a turkey with family members on a Thursday in November. It’s tough to show much more disrespect for others’ lives than some Americans have shown for one another.
We should consider that despite the horrific crimes that these people have committed, they are still people. They are not political cudgels, available for Trump and Barr to make a point while they still have these jobs. That the presence of the death penalty provably increases violence in a society are reasons alone to get rid of it. We’re witnessing possibly the grossest misuse, in our lifetimes, of the power to execute. By committing sins they’ll never be able to atone for, this lame duck and his lackey are proving to the world why no government should be killing people on behalf of its people.