Editorial: Trump’s rush to execute prisoners proves the death penalty is arbitrary

Attorney General William Barr.
Atty. Gen. William Barr is overseeing a rash of federal executions in the dying days of the Trump administration.
(Melina Mara / Washington Post)

Every presidential administration rushes to rack up a last few accomplishments as it enters its final weeks, but at no time in U.S. history has the race to finish an agenda also included killing a slew of federal prisoners.

Since July, when the federal government executed the first prisoner in nearly two decades (most death penalties are meted out in state prisons for state crimes), it has used lethal injections to kill eight people, and intends to kill five more before President Trump and his attorney general, William Barr, leave office on Jan. 20.

At the moment, the federal government accounts for just over half of the 15 death sentences carried out this year. If both of the pending executions this week are carried out, then 10 of the 17 conducted this year will have been directly as a result of the Trump administration’s revival of federal executions.


Counted another way, were it not for the sudden — and overtly political — resumption of federal executions under Trump and Barr, there would have been seven executions nationwide this year, the fewest since 1983 and part of a clear downward trend from a peak of 98 executions in 1999. Granted, the number of executions this year likely would have been higher were it not for lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the trend would have remained the same.

Notably, of the seven state executions carried out so far, three were in Texas and one each in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Missouri, all former slave states, a swath of the country responsible over the past four decades for the majority of executions.

So who is the Trump administration in such a hurry to kill? Again, for apparent political reasons, the condemned include people convicted of murdering children, of raping and killing their victims, of conducting their own executions of people involved in the drug trade and of slaying people the perpetrators believed posed a threat to them for other crimes.

Yes, these people committed vile and horrendous acts that curdle the soul. But they also include severely damaged people. Lisa Montgomery, whose execution was delayed until Jan. 12 after her legal team contracted COVID-19 (attributed to visiting their client in prison), was convicted of murdering a woman and then carving a baby from her womb to raise as her own. Horrific.

But as advocates have argued in seeking a commutation, Montgomery suffered horrific abuse herself — she was the victim of incest and sex trafficking, and she has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and other debilitating mental illnesses that require psychotropic drugs. What public or penological good is gained from killing her?

Similarly, Alfred Bourgeouis faces execution for the torture and murder of his 2-year-old daughter despite clear evidence that he has been intellectually disabled since childhood, with IQ scores no higher than 70 and evidence that his adaptive performance falls far below norms — characteristics that seemingly should have precluded capital punishment under previous Supreme Court standards. Yet the courts denied his appeal over legal technicalities.


The administration also wants to execute Brandon Bernard, who was 18 when he was part of a small group of gang members who kidnapped two youth church ministers. Another gang member shot the couple in the trunk of their car; believing them to be dead, Bernard lit the car on fire. But one of the victims was still alive and died in the flames.

Bernard’s role in planning and carrying out the crime (the gunman was executed in September) was so minimal that the prosecutor who sent him to death row — along with nearly half of the jurors in the case — is now advocating that his sentence be commuted. Again, how is justice served here?

And these are some of the “worst of the worst” that Barr selected from the federal death row for execution.

President-elect Joe Biden opposes the death penalty and has said he will work to end its use, so we expect the federal killing spree will end on Jan. 20. We also hope that Trump and Barr’s cynical resumption of federal executions will stand as yet another example of the inherent arbitrariness of how this country decides whom to execute, and when.

From the decision to seek the death penalty to the signature on the death warrant, decisions are made by people propelled by their own motivations, some sincere, some conniving and opportunistic (prosecutorial misconduct and perjury or false testimony are responsible for most wrongful death row convictions).

And now we are poised to witness the ultimate in arbitrary decisions. One president says, kill them. The next president says don’t. This is a just system?