With the end of the Trump administration nearing, there has been a flurry of federal executions in recent weeks, the most recent being the killing of Dustin Higgs in Indiana over the weekend. This series of executions mark the first time in U.S. history when the federal government has executed more people than any of the states, with a total of 13 inmates killed in the last six months.
Before this round of executions, it had been 17 years since the last federal execution was carried out. Prior to Higgs’ killing, the Trump administration cleared the way for capital punishment against Lisa Montogomery, the only woman on federal death row and the first female prisoner put to death since 1953. In July 2019, the Department of Justice announced the reinitiation of federal executions, which were halted previously as federal death row inmates challenged the DoJ’s lethal injection protocol in Roane v. Gonzales in 2006.
Additionally, a recent poll found that support for capital punishment was tied for the lowest in 48 years and opposition was the highest since 1966. Growing public opposition to capital punishment led to pharmaceutical companies refusing to supply state prison systems with the drugs used for lethal injections.
Consequently, these prison systems turned to the black market to acquire these chemicals instead of permanently halting executions. This is exposed in documents released in 2016 by the ACLU of Northern California, which showed that the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation acquired its lethal drugs from an illegal shipment in Arizona. Without regulation and testing, these black market lethal drugs cause a slow and excruciating death for inmates.
State executions have largely been halted due to the unprecedented surges of COVID-19 acoss prisons. No federal executions, however, have been stayed. As a result, personnel directly involved in carrying out executions travelled across the various prisons in the last few months, inadvertently exposing prison staff and inmates to COVID-19 in the middle of an uncontrolled outbreak. The Marshall Project, which has been tracking COVID-19 cases among prisoners, noted that there have been at least 343,008 cases among prisoners.
Capital punishment in the context of the United States functions as a racist tool against the poor and working class, especially African-Americans. Even in the midst of the deepening pandemic, the Trump administration and the Department of Justice defied all safety rules to carry out an unprecedented number of executions. As Trump leaves office, he leaves behind a legacy not of “law and order” but of extraordinary brutality and injustice.