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Trump on track to preside over most federal executions in more than a century

A "no trespassing" sign outside a federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Ind.
A “no trespassing” sign outside a federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Ind., where a number of executions have taken place.
(Michael Conroy / Associated Press)

As President Trump’s tenure in the White House draws to a close, his administration is accelerating the pace of federal executions, announcing plans for five starting Thursday and concluding just days before the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.

If the five take place as planned, then a total of 13 executions since July, when the administration resumed putting inmates to death after a 17-year hiatus, will cement Trump’s legacy as the most prolific execution president in more than 130 years. He will leave office having executed about a quarter of all federal death-row prisoners, despite waning support for capital punishment among both Democrats and Republicans.

In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Atty. Gen. William Barr defended the extension of executions into the post-election period, saying that he was likely to schedule even more before he departs the Justice Department. A Biden administration, he said, should keep it up.

“I think the way to stop the death penalty is to repeal the death penalty,” Barr said. “But if you ask juries to impose and juries impose it, then it should be carried out.”

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The plan breaks a tradition of lame-duck presidents deferring to incoming presidents with regard to policies on which they differ so starkly, said Robert Durham, director of the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center. Biden, a Democrat, opposes capital punishment, and his spokesman told the AP that he would work to end the death penalty when he is in office.

“It’s hard to understand why anybody at this stage of a presidency feels compelled to kill this many people … especially when the American public voted for someone else to replace you and that person has said he opposes the death penalty,” Durham said. “This is a complete historical aberration.”

The U.S. has executed a man in the death of a 16-year-old Texas girl, who was kidnapped and raped before being doused with gasoline and buried alive.

Not since the waning days of Grover Cleveland’s presidency in the late 1800s has the U.S. government executed federal inmates during a presidential transition, Durham said. Cleveland’s was also the last presidency during which the number of civilians executed federally was in the double digits in a year, with 14 executed in 1896.

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Anti-death penalty groups want Biden to lobby harder for a halt to the flurry of pre-inaugural executions, although Biden can’t do much to stop them, especially considering that Trump won’t even concede he lost the election and is spreading baseless claims of voting fraud.

One anti-capital punishment group, the Ohio-based Death Penalty Action, has garnered some 3,000 signatures on a petition calling on Biden to make “a clear and strong statement” demanding that the executions stop.

The issue is an uncomfortable one for Biden given his past support for capital punishment and his central role crafting a 1994 crime bill that added 60 federal crimes for which someone could be put to death.

Navajo leaders had said the execution would violate tribal sovereignty. Mitchell was convicted in the 2001 killing of a child and her grandmother.

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Activists say the bill, which Biden has since agreed was flawed, puts added pressure on him to act.

“He is acknowledging the sins” of the past, said Abraham Bonowitz, Death Penalty Action’s director. “Now he’s got to fix it.”

Several inmates already executed on death row were convicted under provisions of that bill, including ones that classified fatal kidnappings and carjackings as federal capital offenses.

The race of those set to die buttresses criticism that the bill disproportionately impacted Black people. Four of the five set to die over the next few weeks are Black. The fifth, Lisa Montgomery, is white. Convicted of killing a pregnant woman and cutting out the baby alive, she is the only woman of the 61 inmates who were on death row when executions resumed last summer, and she would be the first woman to be executed by the federal government in nearly six decades.

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The U.S. government has put the first Black inmate to death since the Trump administration this year resumed federal executions after a nearly two-decade pause.

The executions so far this year have been by lethal injection at a penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., where all federal executions take place. The drug used to carry out the sentences is sparse. The Justice Department recently updated protocols to allow for executions by firing squad and poison gas, but it’s unclear if those methods might be used in coming weeks.

Barr suddenly announced in July 2019 that executions would resume, though there had been no public clamor for it. Several lawsuits kept the initial ones from being carried out, and by the time the Bureau of Prisons got clearance, the COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing.

Critics have said the restart of executions in an election year was politically motivated, helping Trump burnish his claim to be a law-and-order president. The choice to first execute a series of white males convicted of killing children also appeared calculated to make executions more palatable amid protests nationwide over racial bias in the justice system.

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The first federal execution, on July 14, was of Daniel Lewis Lee, convicted of killing an Arkansas family in a 1990s plot to build a whites-only nation in the Pacific Northwest.

Barr has insisted that the reinstatement of federal executions was driven by adherence to laws. He noted that under Democratic presidents, including Barack Obama, U.S. authorities sought death sentences; they just didn’t carry them out.

“I don’t feel it is a political issue,” Barr told the AP.

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Trump has been a consistent supporter of the death penalty. In a 1990 Playboy interview, he described himself as a strong supporter of capital punishment, saying, “Either it will be brought back swiftly or our society will rot away.”

Thirty years later, not even the worsening pandemic has slowed his administration’s determination to push ahead with executions, rejecting repeated calls to freeze the policy until the pandemic eases.

The expectation is that Biden will end the Trump administration’s policy of carrying out executions as quickly as the law allows, but his longer-term approach is unclear.

Durham said that, although Obama placed a moratorium on federal executions, he left the door open for future presidents to resume them. Obama, for whom Biden served as vice president, never employed the option of commuting all federal death sentences to life terms.

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As president, Biden could seek to persuade Congress to abolish the federal death penalty or simply invoke his commutation powers to single-handedly convert all death sentences to lifetime prison terms.


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