Righting America

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Killing as Many as They Can, as Long as They Can | Righting America

by William Trollinger

Picture of Brandon Bernard standing next two women and a man in a prison hallway.
Brandon Bernard, who is scheduled for execution today, December 10, 2020. Photo via The New Yorker.

Just when you imagine that the Trump Administration could not get any crueler, it does, even as it is heading out the door.

After a seventeen-year hiatus in federal executions, on July 14 the Trump Administration began killing federal death row inmates. In just four months eight individuals were put to death by the U. S. government. In the process, they tied the Eisenhower Administration for most executions in one presidency, although, of course, it took Ike eight years to do what Trump and company have accomplished since July.

Not satiated, not satisfied to tie the record, the lame-duck administration plans to execute five more individuals over the next two months: 

  • December 10: Brandon Bernard
  • December 11: Alfred Bourgeois
  • January 12: Lisa Montgomery
  • January 14: Corey Johnson
  • January 15: Dustin Higgs

Amazingly enough, administering thirteen executions in six months is simply not enough to slake this administration’s blood-thirst. Donald Trump and William Barr are also seeking to loosen regulations on federal executions so that the means of killing death-row inmates is not limited to lethal injection, but could include death by firing squad or electrocution. 

What is particularly remarkable about all this is that this spate of executions is taking place at the same time that public support for the death penalty is at its lowest point in fifty years. What is also remarkable is that – in the past 45 years since the Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment is constitutionally acceptable – we have a mountain of evidence that application of the death penalty is capricious, as poor and minority defendants are executed in grossly disproportionate numbers (if you are white and middle class, the chances of you being executed for murder are negligible), and the odds go up if the victim was white. More than this, innocent people are sentenced to die and are sometimes executed. And it turns out that most of the Western world can function without executions, and with lower rates of violent crime – and there is no conclusive or even substantive evidence that capital punishment serves as a deterrent.

95 criminal justice officials said all this and more in a December 03 statement calling on the Trump administration to stop the five executions it has scheduled over the next month. In this statement these prosecutors, police chiefs, and sheriffs noted that while “many have tried for over forty years to make America’s death penalty system just,” the “reality is that our nation’s use of this sanction cannot be repaired.” As the statement pointedly asserts,

We also now know that we have not executed the worst of the worst, but often instead put to death the unluckiest of the unlucky – the impoverished, the poorly represented, and the most broken. Time and again, we have executed individuals with long histories of debilitating mental illness, childhoods marred by unspeakable physical and mental abuse, and intellectual disabilities that have prevented them from leading independent adult lives.

All of this definitely applies to the five individuals scheduled to be killed in the next few weeks. Brandon Bernard (who is scheduled to be put to death today, although there are ongoing efforts to have the death sentence commuted) was 18 at the time he was convicted of murder: not only will he be the youngest offender executed by the federal government in seven decades, but it turns out that the prosecution suppressed evidence that would have established that he had a reduced role in the killings, while at the same time Bernard’s defense counsel was essentially invisible. All these are reasons why five of the nine jurors that sentenced him to death have now asked for or are not opposed to the commutation of his death sentence.

As for the next four to be executed:

Alfred Bourgeois and Corey Johnson both have IQ scores in the clinically accepted range for intellectual disability. Lisa Montgomery was the victim of extraordinary physical and sexual abuse and is seriously mentally ill. Dustin Higgs did not kill anyone but was sentenced to death while his more culpable co-defendant received a life sentence.

The capricious nature of the death penalty certainly applied to my friend Samuel McDonald. Having grown up in a poor, African-American family in St. Louis, Sam enlisted in the Army and was sent to Vietnam. While he was an excellent soldier who was awarded a number of medals, the experience traumatized him – especially his killing of an infant and elderly woman in the “sweep” of a village – and he returned to the States deeply disturbed emotionally and mentally, and addicted to drugs. High on a heroin substitute, on May 16, 1981 he robbed and killed an off-duty police officer. That was bad enough, but he was assigned an inept public defender who saw fit to engage in shouting matches with the judge. More than this – and much more problematic – the trial judge refused to admit evidence regarding Sam’s emotional and mental instability, even though it was clear that Sam was suffering from combat-induced PTSD.

So 16 years later – September 24, 1997 – I was in the “friends and family” viewing booth in the Potosi Correctional Institute, where I watched the state of Missouri put Sam to death via lethal injection.

On August 02, 2018, the Catholic Church issued a formal revision of its catechism to establish that capital punishment is in all cases “inadmissible.” This was reinforced on October 03, 2020, when – in a papal encyclical letter entitled Fratelli Tutti – Pope Francis called for “the abolition of the death penalty, legal or illegal, in all its forms.”   

But despite being  a conservative Catholic, Attorney General William Barr has proven himself more than willing to flout Church teachings on capital punishment. 

And for all their avowed “pro-life” passion, the silence from pro-Trump evangelicals regarding the government’s string of executions has been deafening. 

Killing as many as they can, as long as they can.