News yesterday that the Justice Department plans to resume executing prisoners awaiting the death penalty is an ominous sign of what we’ve become as a nation.
The announcement by Attorney General William P. Barr ends almost two decades in which the federal government had not imposed capital punishment on prisoners.
The question is, why?
On Thursday Barr ordered the Bureau of Prisons to schedule executions for five inmates currently on death row. The prisoners were convicted of murdering children.
The Trump administration’s push to resume capital punishment in the federal system goes against the recent trend of declining executions across the country.
Reaction was mixed, with many Americans praising the hard-line position. While others maintained it has nothing to do with crime and punishment, and has everything to do with more stirring up of Trump’s base.
The last federal execution was in 2003. In the years since, there has been an informal moratorium on executions of federal prisoners, as Justice Department officials reviewed its lethal injection procedures. That practice was underscored during the Obama administration by then-Attorney General Eric Holder’s personal opposition to the death penalty, even while he approved prosecutors’ decisions to seek the death penalty in specific trials.
This week, Barr said it was time for convicted killers sentenced to death by juries to receive that ultimate punishment. “The Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” Barr said in a statement.
Barr ordered the Bureau of Prisons to adopt a new policy for lethal injections, one that officials said closely mirrors the protocols used in Georgia, Missouri and Texas, replacing a three-drug lethal combination with one drug, pentobarbital.
According to published reports, the number of executions nationwide has plummeted over the last two decades, falling to 25 executions last year, down from 98 carried out in 1999. The number of states carrying out death sentences has also declined as some have abolished capital punishment, announced moratoriums or struggled to obtain the drugs sought for executions.
Capital punishment was abolished in the state of Vermont in 1972. The state last executed a prisoner in 1954, when Donald DeMag was put to death for a double robbery-murder he had committed after escaping while serving a life sentence for an earlier murder.
In 2005, Donald Fell was sentenced to death after being convicted of carjacking with death resulting and kidnapping with death resulting by a federal jury in Vermont. Fell’s conviction was overturned in July 2014, owing to “egregious juror misconduct.” Fell later pleaded guilty to avoid another sentencing hearing and was sentenced to life in prison without parole in September 2018.
Earlier this year, neighboring New Hampshire abolished the death penalty, making it the 21st state to formally abandon capital punishment. In some of the other states where it remains the law, the death penalty is effectively frozen, including by governor-issued moratoriums in California and Pennsylvania and a court order in North Carolina.
Supporters of capital punishment, who argue that it should be applied for heinous crimes, have said that delays in carrying out death sentences are unfair to the relatives of victims. Opponents of the practice have argued the system is dangerously flawed, pointing to cases of people who have been exonerated after being sentenced to death.
A Pew Research Center poll last year found that 54% of people supported it. Nationwide, that number has declined significantly since the mid-1990s. At that time, when crime rates were far higher, four in five Americans backed capital punishment.
According to Pew, most Republicans still back it, while Democrats oppose the death penalty. President Trump has been an outspoken supporter of capital punishment for decades, while Democratic candidates running against him have argued that it should be abolished.
Retribution solves nothing; and capital criminals — of which we have many — are better off jailed with no hope of parole. That is plenty enough punishment without resorting to killing. (Capital cases are also very expensive because of the number of appeals that come with them.)
This administration seeks to defile the entire concept of “rule of law” — oftentimes with arrogant impunity. A call to reinstate the federal death penalty is just another disgrace to this nation, and goes to show our current pathology of sadism.