On July 25, 2019, US Attorney General William Barr announced that the US government would resume executions after a nearly two-decade hiatus. The first killing of the new regime occurred nearly a year later with the execution of Daniel Lewis Lee on July 14, 2020. In the next three days, two others were killed – Wesley Purkey on July 16 and Dustin Honken on July 17. In August, there were two more executions and then two in September. The eighth federal execution of 2020 is scheduled for November 19. This whirlwind pace of executions is at odds with what states have done, which has largely been to slow down or halt executions altogether in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is even more out of step with the federal government’s past record; before 2020, it had not executed more than five people in civilian courts in a single year since the start of WWII.
From 1972 to 2020, the federal government conducted executions only sparingly. The federal death penalty was found unconstitutional after the Supreme Court’s 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia. While states moved quickly to draft new death penalty statutes conforming with the Supreme Court’s decision, Congress did not enact a new capital punishment statute until it passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988. This Act dealt largely with murders committed in the course of drug trafficking. The Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994 expanded availability of the death penalty to 60 crimes. Even then, the federal government only executed three people between 1972 and 2020 – Timothy McVeigh and Juan Garza in 2001 and Louis Jones in 2003. However, people continued to receive death sentences, and today about 60 individuals are on federal death row in Terra Haute, IN.
The federal government’s infrequent executions (until this year) track a national trend of declining executions and death sentences. Gallup’s 2020 Moral Values and Beliefs poll found that only 54% of Americans believe that the death penalty is morally acceptable (an all-time low in the poll’s 20-year history) while a 2019 poll found that, given the choice between life imprisonment and the death penalty as a punishment for murder, 60% preferred the former and only 36% the latter. America’s death penalty is deeply flawed; receiving the death penalty has less to do with the crime committed than race, geography, and the quality of representation. Moreover, 170 people sentenced to death in the United States have been exonerated since 1973, demonstrating a real risk of executing an innocent person. The federal death penalty is no exception to these problems.
In order for a federal prosecutor to pursue a death sentence, the decision must be approved by the DOJ, whose head, the United States Attorney General, is appointed by the president. As a result, the president’s agenda has great influence on how often the federal death penalty is used and how often executions actually occur. While in office, President Obama called the death penalty “deeply troubling,” commissioned then-Attorney General Eric Holder to begin a broad study of the death penalty, and commuted two federal death sentences; there were no federal executions during the eight years of his presidency. President Trump is an enthusiastic supporter of the death penalty, though he has been quiet about this spate of executions during an election season where he has tried to set himself apart as the law and order candidate – perhaps because of capital punishment’s growing unpopularity on both the left and the right. Nevertheless, there is no reason to think that the current pace of executions would slow if President Trump is re-elected. In contrast, former Vice President Biden has pledged to eliminate the federal death penalty and incentivize states to end capital punishment as well.
This year has been marked by protests against state violence by police. Capital punishment is another form of violence enacted by the criminal punishment system, and it too must not be permitted to thrive in silence. It magnifies the worst aspects of criminal law in the United State –racism, classism, inequity, randomness – with the biggest stakes on the line. It authorizes the government to determine who is worthy of life and death. Allowing the federal government to rapidly and efficiently kill its citizens gives cover to states to do the same, at a time when states are slowing their use of the death penalty and more and more states are abolishing it altogether. It is time for the federal execution spree to come to an end, for good.