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Opinion: Atty. Gen. William Barr wants to kill three people next week

Atty. Gen. William Barr wants to resume federal executions next week.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

The federal government wants to kill three condemned prisoners by lethal injection next week in the federal prison at Terre Haute, Ind. — primarily, it seems, because Atty. Gen. William Barr wants it to happen.

A federal judge late Friday issued an injunction halting the first scheduled execution after some of the victims relatives — who oppose the execution — argued that it would be unsafe for them to travel to the prison to witness it. But the others remain on the clock, and the government can appeal the injunction, so the wrangling will continue through the weekend,

When it comes to capital punishment, the federal government is a bit player. Most murders are state crimes, and capital punishment laws vary by jurisdiction. Only 28 states still have a death penalty on the books. Of those, three — including California — have declared moratoriums on actually executing anyone. And 12 of those 28 states — again, including California — have not killed a death-row inmate in more than a decade.

But some murders, depending on the circumstances, are violations of federal law. Yet the federal government hasn’t executed anyone in nearly two decades. Barr decided to restart executions using a single drug — pentobarbital — instead of the controversial three-drug protocol.

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The Supreme Court ruling on birth control appears to give the next president the power to reverse much of Trump’s initiative while allowing the court fight to continue.

The Supreme Court rejected a challenge that the new single-drug protocol violated a federal statute requiring federal executions to follow the guidelines of the state in which the federal crime occurred, and the calendar was set for next week’s killings.

If all three executions take place, the federal government will double the number of people it has put to death since it resumed the practice in 1988. It will also reduce its roster of the condemned to 59, the majority of whom are people of color, and the vast majority of whom were convicted in the South.

So yes, the federal death penalty is fraught with the same arbitrariness as the states’ capital punishment systems, under which 97 people have been killed since January 2016 — all but three in Southern states.

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So who does Barr want to execute next week? All three cases included child victims, though the vast majority of federal capital murder cases do not. Given the blatant politicization of the Justice Department under Barr, it doesn’t take a cynic to question why he picked these particular convicted murderers to execute first.

As the schedule stands, Daniel Lewis Lee, a white supremacist convicted in the murder of an Arkansas family, will be executed Monday. And that case offers a clear indictment of the arbitrary nature of the death penalty.

Lee and fellow racist Chevie Kehoe, who dreamed of a white nation carved out of the Pacific Northwest, were convicted of killing an Arkansas couple and their daughter. Kehoe, by most accounts, was the main driver in the brutal crime, and Lee a follower.

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Kehoe was sentenced first, and the jury gave him life in prison. But then it sentenced Lee, who lost one eye in a bar fight and sports a swastika tattoo on his neck, to death. Two men, same crime, one with slightly more culpability, two sentences — with the heavier weight falling on the follower, not the leader.

Arbitrary. So believes the former judge who oversaw the case, the prosecutor and some of the victims’ relatives, one of whom has sued to stop the execution.

Said Barr in announcing the executions, “We owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system” — apparently, even if the families don’t want to collect on that particular debt.

On Wednesday, the government intends to execute Wesley Ira Purkey, who has a disturbingly violent history — but also a disturbingly violent childhood that included being raped by his own mother. His adult life has been marked by mental illness (including bipolar disorder), several significant head injuries (including getting his face broken in an altercation with police), and now Alzheimer’s disease, leaving the 67-year-old Purkey with a questionable grasp of why the government wants to kill him Wednesday. (Read two evaluations here and here.)

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This is justice? Backers of the death penalty argue that it is there to dispose of the “worst of the worst,” but in practice it falls disproportionately on people of color, the poor and the mentally ill, and executions usually come so long after the crime itself that there no longer is a penological justification for it.

So we’re left with vengeance for the sake of vengeance, even if it means letting the government kill its own citizens, a brazenly excessive use of government power.

Updates:

2:02 PM, Jul. 10, 2020: This post was updated to include the injunction halting Monday’s execution of Daniel Lewis Lee.


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