Analysis

Trump sets the record for death penalty killings in the last months of his presidency

Anti-death penalty and racial justice advocates in Texas reacted with outrage and disgust at the Trump administration’s plan to carry out a record number of federal executions during the final two months of his lame-duck presidency. 

On the morning of Dec. 10, the day 40-year-old Brandon Bernard was scheduled to be executed, the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement met in Houston’s historically Black Third Ward for a press conference followed by an afternoon protest at the Federal Building downtown. The Abolition Movement decried the fact that, of the six executions scheduled to take place between Nov. 19 and Jan. 15, five are of Black men. They also denounced the Trump administration for being the first administration to carry out federal executions during the lame-duck period, in which there is a transition to a new administration, in well over 130 years.

Race to execute as many people as possible

To support Trump’s reelection campaign message of being the “law and order” president, Attorney General William Barr ordered the reinstatement of the federal death penalty in July. This ended the moratorium that had been put in place 17 years ago. Since then there have been 10 executions by lethal injection, with three more scheduled to take place before Trump leaves office. The administration is in such a rush to execute people that last month it introduced a new rule that would allow the federal government the option to execute death row inmates by electrocution, hanging, gassing or shooting.

This comes at a time when the vast majority of state governments have halted executions due to prisons proving to be some of the most high-risk places for the spread of COVID-19. The federal government, however, has no such qualms about spreading the virus to prisoners, staff members or lawyers. For each execution carried out at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terra Haute, Ind., the execution team consists of 40 Bureau of Prison staff members plus an additional 200 prison staff. Data obtained by the ACLU in September revealed that the executions have likely resulted in a spike in COVID-19 cases. Nearly 200 people have contracted the virus at the facility and at least three people have died.

The racial disparities in the application of the death penalty epitomize the racism of the entire criminal “justice” system. Consider the fact that not a single one of the six people executed by the federal government from 1988 to August 2020 was sentenced for a crime involving a Black victim. When it comes to executions carried out by the states, the numbers are every bit as staggering. Even though Black people comprise 50 percent of all homicide victims nationally, 80 percent of the people executed on death row are convicted of a crime against a white person. It is clear which lives matter most in the eyes of the criminal “justice” system.

Executions continue despite last minute appeals

More people have been executed at the federal level since July than in the past 50 years combined, with some of the inmates still having pending litigation at the time their executions were scheduled. The first execution to take place after the 2020 presidential election was that of Orlando Hall on Nov. 19. Hall, a Black man convicted by an all-white jury, was the first person sentenced to death under the Joe Biden-authored Crime Bill. The Crime Bill, signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1994, vastly expanded capital punishment at the federal level.

Brandon Bernard, another Black man convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury, was a teenager in 1999 when a group he was affiliated with abducted, robbed and killed a couple in Killeen, Tex. Even though it wasn’t Bernard who killed the couple, he was sentenced to death for later lighting their car on fire. Several of the jurors who voted to put him to death expressed regret for doing so and said that Bernard should never have been tried with the associate who carried out the killing. President Trump and the Supreme Court were petitioned to intervene after one of the original prosecutors in Bernard’s 2000 trial stated that racial bias potentially influenced the jury’s decision. They declined, and on the night of Dec. 10, Brandon Bernard was killed by lethal injection. The very next day, an intellectually disabled Louisiana truck driver and Black man named Alfred Bourgeois was put to death, despite a 2002 Supreme Court ruling which held that executing people with intellectual disabilities violates the 8th Amendment. Corey Johnson, another Black man scheduled to be executed on Jan. 14, also has an intellectual disability.

On Jan. 12, one week prior to the inauguration, Lisa Montgomery is scheduled to be put to death, making her the first woman executed by the federal government in 67 years. Montgomery suffers from extreme mental illness after a life of being sexually abused, tortured and sex trafficked. The final person to be executed before Trump’s exit is Dustin Higgs, a Black man whose legal lynching is scheduled to occur on Martin Luther King Jr.‘s birthday. Higgs did not kill anybody according to all eyewitness accounts of his case. His co-defendant, who admitted to carrying out the murders Higgs was sentenced for, was given life without parole.

Abolition movement demands end to racist death penalty

Despite the renewed assault, abolitionists are still mobilizing to save lives. Activists in Houston have protested outside the Mickey Leland federal building each and every time the federal government was scheduled to carry out a federal execution. 

In a statement provided to Liberation News, Trey Legall of the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement said that while the Trump administration has certainly been egregious, the movement to abolish capital punishment does not end once Trump is out of office. After all, it was Biden’s Crime Bill which enabled many of these executions in the first place. 

“Instead of centering ‘powerful’ individuals, such as Attorney General Bill Barr, we would like to draw attention back to the ruling class who silently enable and push for unjust murders to maintain their status quo,” said Legall. “Those actions which have a material impact on marginalized peoples of the world rarely, if ever, see litigation. So we charge the conditions of our society for intentionally and deliberately producing desperation and inequalities amongst the most vulnerable. Killing people who are accused of ‘crime’ does not stop the harm; it spreads it. We charge our representatives to once and for all abolish the death penalty, a crucial step for our society to heal and for us to get free.”

Trump began his presidency promising to “shake things up” in Washington. He ends it by carrying out the most federal executions of Black people in the nation’s history. The death penalty acts as the continuation of lynch law with the window dressing of legality. This racist tool the ruling capitalist class uses to oppress the poor and working class must be abolished once and for all.

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