The Lame-Duck Executioner: Trump Prepares to Execute Five Prisoners in Closing Days of Presidency

StoryNovember 30, 2020
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We look at the unprecedented five federal executions President Trump’s Department of Justice has scheduled before Inauguration Day, starting with Brandon Bernard on International Human Rights Day and ending with Dustin Higgs on January 15, Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. Four of the people set to die are Black men, and the other is Lisa Montgomery, a severely mentally ill white woman who faced a lifetime of sexual abuse and would be the first woman executed in nearly 70 years. “When you give absolute power over life and death to government officials, they can really do what they want,” responds Sister Helen Prejean, one of the world's most well-known anti-death-penalty activists. She also discusses the life and legacy of Bill Pelke, who co-founded the group Journey of Hope and partnered with Prejean to campaign against the death penalty and spare the life of the woman who was 15 years old when she killed his grandmother.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we look further at the unprecedented five federal executions President Trump’s Justice Department has scheduled before Inauguration Day.

On December 10th — that’s International Human Rights Day — the federal government plans to kill a 40-year-old Black man named Brandon Bernard. He was 18 years old when he was allegedly an accomplice to a murder of a young white couple. During his trial, his attorneys did not make opening statements. At the penalty stage, they called no witnesses. Out of the 12 jurors, all but one was white. Now five of the jurors say they think Bernard should be not be executed. A former assistant U.S. attorney who helped secure his death sentence wrote in The Indianapolis Star, quote, “Executing Brandon would be a terrible stain on the nation’s honor.” That’s one of the prosecutors who prosecuted him.

On the day after Bernard is set to die, Alfred Bourgeois, another Black man, is scheduled to be federally executed December 11th. As we reported, January 12th, Lisa Montgomery is scheduled to be the first woman executed by the federal government in nearly 70 years. The Trump administration has rejected her request for a reprieve. On January 14th, Cory Johnson, another Black man, is set to be put to death. According to Johnson’s attorneys, he has an IQ of 69, which means he’s below the standard the Supreme Court used to determine if an execution would be cruel and unusual punishment. And on January 15th, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, the federal government is expected to execute Dustin Higgs, another Black man, who was sentenced to die for his role in the murder of three women even though he did not kill them, under the so-called law of parties theory.

For more, we continue with Sister Helen Prejean, one of the world’s most well-known anti-death-penalty activists.

Sister Helen Prejean, if you can comment on this unprecedented — not in a hundred years has a lame-duck administration executed one, let alone five, prisoners in this period.

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: It just shows when you give absolute power over life and death to government officials, they can really do what they want. One interesting thing about Grover Cleveland, in the lame-duck time when he executed people — he had once been a sheriff in Erie, New York, and carried out executions, so he had it in his blood.

And then for this to happen, it’s just — see, I’ve accompanied six people to execution. It’s this absolute power to take a human being who’s alive and make these inscrutable decisions all along the way, as I was mentioning earlier — first of all, to even assume that out of all the murderers, you’re going to be able to pinpoint the “worst of the worst,” either by their character — by their very nature, they are evil people — or by what they have done, to determine they are in a special category all their own, and you can distinguish them, and then to believe that you can set up a system of the jury, the trial.

And the basic flaw in all these things is, is that at trial you’re supposed to have an adversarial way of coming to truth. So you have prosecutors that present: “There’s forensic evidence. Here’s the scenario of the crime.” But you’re supposed to have defense, that’s supposed to be able to say to this jury, “Decide the whole story of the person who did the crime.” You always have to look at culpability, like Lisa Montgomery, culpability of someone who’s psychotic, who was brutalized and tortured her whole life, and then to pinpoint the — identifying her by the crime, that she should be killed, it’s so flawed. And the suffering is so great.

And here’s the thing. Here’s why I wrote Dead Man Walking. And here’s why I just wrote River of Fire about waking up to these injustices and then being an active citizen doing something about it. All this is a secret ritual. The public is not going to be anywhere near and cannot be near Lisa Montgomery and what she’s suffering now, what it’s going to mean when she’s put in an all-male prison. If we didn’t have people like Democracy Now!, if we didn’t have the media, if we didn’t have activists and witnesses in there seeing these things, the people would just go, “Oh, that’s a terrible crime. She deserves to die.” It’s such a superficial, thin-souled way of approaching a deeply moral issue.

So, what we, you and I — what we’re doing now in bringing the public close to this, and that we’ve got to find an alternative — which in fact the people are doing. We are shutting down the death penalty in states. We’re down to 2% of counties where prosecutors still somewhat go after the death penalty, side by side with other prosecutors who never go for it, because it’s up to the discrepancy of the person to choose death or not.

Take Brandon Bernard. I’ve gotten involved with his case. And just two times now, I’ve been able to be on conference calls with him and with his lawyers, trying to save his life. And he described — this would be like three Fridays ago. So, he’s grown up on death row in Terre Haute. He was just 18 when the crime happened. Has expressed remorse. Can’t even imagine. He was just a young kid when this crime happened of these people being killed. And he did play some part in it, but anybody who knows Brandon knows he would never have consented to killing people as what happened.

At his trial, supposedly an expert on future dangerousness, which has widely been debunked now as totally unpredictable. The jury was told that he was the leader of a gang. He wasn’t the leader. He was the low guy on the totem pole. So they have an image of him as this mastermind, this leader who gave all the directions for these people being killed. And let’s get back to three or four Fridays ago. It’s a regular day in his life. He gets along with everybody at the prison. Twenty —

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds, Sister Helen.

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Anyway, two guards come to his door. They don’t say a word. He usually jokes with them. They put handcuffs on him, walk him down the hall where the warden is waiting and says, “Here’s the warrant for your death. You’ll be dead by this date.” And, of course, he — then his whole life — it’s torture. It’s unseen. We have to get the word out, and to the American people: Shut this down.

AMY GOODMAN: Sister Helen, before we go, I wanted to ask you about someone else who you have worked with over the years: Bill Pelke, the anti-death-penalty activist who died earlier this month at the age of 73, co-founded the group Journey of Hope, partnered with you to campaign against the death penalty. On May 14th, ’85, his grandmother Ruth Pelke was murdered by then 15-year-old Paula Cooper. Paula was later convicted and sentenced to death, making her the youngest person on death row. Pelke was among those who pleaded for her life to be spared. In 2013, Bill Pelke spoke on Democracy Now!

BILL PELKE: But I knew immediately — when my heart was touched with that compassion and forgiveness took place, I knew, from that moment on, whenever I would think about my grandmother again, I would no longer picture how she died, but I would picture how she lived, what she stood for, what she believed in, the beautiful, wonderful person she was. And I knew it wasn’t something that happened just so I’d feel good for a period of time, but it was something to be shared with other people.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Bill Pelke on Democracy Now!, with you, in 2013. In fact, he was able to help get Paula Cooper off of death row, although she would ultimately take her own life. Your final thoughts in this last 20 seconds, Sister Helen Prejean?

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Bill Pelke is one more example of someone who, instead of being dehumanized by violence that happened to his beloved grandmother, took that courage that she had and brought it into life. And he fought for it his whole life, to end the death penalty. He was the one waiting for Paula Cooper when she was released from prison, and it played such a role, because he believed in life and that all human beings could be redeemed.

AMY GOODMAN: Sister Helen Prejean, I thank you so much for being with us, one of the world’s most well-known anti-death-penalty activists.

And as we end today’s show, a very happy birthday to Deena Guzder. Democracy Now! produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Libby Rainey, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud and Adriano Contreras. Special thanks to Julie Crosby. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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