By Amy Goodman & Denis Moynihan
Pardons and pentobarbitol are defining the waning weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency. Speculation is rampant over whether Trump will grant himself a preemptive pardon, along with his three eldest children, Donald Jr., Ivanka, and Eric, his son-in-law Jared Kushner; and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani. If Trump does, he’ll be the first president in U.S. history to pardon himself.
Meanwhile, the 54 people on federal death row can expect no such mercy from Trump. He has already executed eight federal prisoners, ending a 30-year hiatus in federal executions, and intends to kill five more before he leaves office on January 20th. Four of those scheduled to die are African American men and the other is the only woman on federal death row. She would be the first woman executed by the federal government in nearly 70 years. These will be the first federal executions to occur during an outgoing president’s “lame duck” period in over 130 years, since President Grover Clevelend executed three men of color. Cleveland lost the election, but would be the only president to win again, four years later.
The federal government’s only death chamber, at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, is only equipped to kill by lethal injection. In order to expedite the killing spree, the Trump administration has issued a rule change, authorizing federal executions to take place by firing squad, poison gas, or electrocution as well. The change was to take effect on Christmas Eve, highlighting how cruel and barbaric the death penalty is. The effective date was quietly shifted to December 28th.
The next federal prisoner scheduled to die is Brandon Bernard, on December 10th — International Human Rights Day. All but one of his jurors was white, and now, five of them say he should not be executed. The next day, December 11th, Alfred Bourgeois is set to be killed. Cory Johnson, whose attorneys say has an IQ of 69 and thus falls below the Supreme Court’s standard allowing the death penalty, has an execution date of January 14th. Dustin Higgs is the final of the four African American men Trump intends to execute just days before he leaves office. Higgs is slated to die on January 15th, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.
Study after study has confirmed deep racial bias in the application of the death penalty, primarily targeting African American defendants in crimes with white victims.
“It’s a paroxysm of violence,” Cornell law professor Sandra Babcock said on the Democracy Now! news hour. She is an advocate for Lisa Montgomery, the sole woman on federal death row. Babcock described the horrific childhood that Montgomery suffered:
“She was a victim of incest, of gang rape, of child sex trafficking, of unimaginable violence for her entire life, before she committed the crime for which she was sentenced to death. She is profoundly mentally ill....her stepfather built her a special room off the side of their trailer so he and his buddies could go in and rape her. Her mother sold her to the plumber and to the electrician, told her that she had to earn her keep.” Babcock added, “The jury never heard about the scope of her abuse or its impact. She is the most broken of the broken.”
Lisa Montgomery was sentenced to death in 2008 for the murder of a pregnant woman named Bobbie Jo Stinnett. Montgomery lives, imprisoned, under constant sedation with powerful antipsychotic drugs to treat her severe mental illness. “There are at least 16 women who have committed very similar crimes, and prosecutors in those cases recognized that these crimes are the product of trauma and mental illness,” Babcock explained.
During a legal visit with Montgomery in November, her two principal attorneys contracted COVID-19. A federal judge granted a delay, but her execution date has now been reset for January 12th.
The Pew Research Center recently reported that Trump has used the power of clemency far less than any president in modern history, granting only 28 pardons and 16 commutations, including several to his political allies — less than one-half of one percent of clemency requests. President Barack Obama granted clemency 1,927 times, by comparison.
Renowned anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking,” said on Democracy Now!, “There’s no need for these executions to happen. It’s the callous brute force mentality of the Trump administration…He can use violence and force to make his point.” She added, “You can’t let frail, politically driven individuals decide ‘You, you and you are going to die.’”
President-elect Joe Biden has said he supports ending the federal death penalty. It is outdated, racist, and ineffective. Like Donald Trump’s presidency, it is time for the death penalty to end.