How the restart of federal executions led to calls to abolish the death penalty
Support of capital punishment has gradually been on the decline in the US. Gallup now reports that 43% of Americans are not in favor of the death penalty for someone convicted of murder and 60% report they’d rather see the murderer receive a life sentence instead.
In the final six months of his presidency, former President Donald Trump’s administration carried out 13 executions, more than any administration in 120 years.
Support of capital punishment has gradually been on the decline in the United States. Gallup now reports that 43% of Americans are not in favor of the death penalty for someone convicted of murder and 60% report they’d rather see the murderer receive a life sentence instead.
Senate Democrats have now introduced legislation that will end federal executions for good.
Death row cases
Many criminals spend years on death row as they exhaust their court appeals. Two of the most notable recent cases are those of Lisa Montgomery, the first woman to be executed since 1953, and Dustin Higgs, the final person to be executed under the Trump administration.
Lisa Montgomery had been on death row since 2007. In 2004, Montgomery strangled Bobbie Jo Stinnett, cut Stinnett’s baby out of her stomach and then kidnapped it. Stinnett was charged with federal kidnapping resulting in death. Her lawyer, Kelley Henry, argued that Stinnett had serious brain damage and mental illness as a result of a lifetime of abuse.
In a statement after the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced its plan to execute Montgomery, Henry said, “In the grip of her mental illness, Lisa committed a terrible crime. Yet she immediately expressed profound remorse and was willing to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence with no possibility of release.”
Henry added that Montgomery’s original lawyer had failed to recount Montgomery’s troubled past and mental issues and had the “dubious distinction of having more clients on federal death row than any other attorney.”
Since 1972, 173 individuals who were put on death row were later exonerated. Additionally, questions about the constitutionality of putting those who suffer from mental illness to death have arisen frequently in the executions the Trump administration authorized. Of the 13 executions the Trump administration carried out in the past six months, several were alleged to have been rushed through at the request of the government.
Dustin Higgs was convicted of ordering his friend to kill three women in 1996. On October 11, 2000, the US District Court of Maryland found Higgs guilty of “three counts of first-degree premeditated murder, three counts of first-degree felony murder, and three counts of kidnapping resulting in death” and recommended nine death sentences.
The man who shot the women, Willis Haynes, is serving life in prison. The prosecutor at the trial alleged that Higgs ordered Hayes to kill the women. Haynes disputes this, saying in a signed affidavit, “Dustin didn’t threaten me. I was not scared of him. Dustin didn’t make me do anything that night or ever.”
Justice “on the fly”
Attorney General William Barr, who organized most of the executions before he resigned in December, sees no point in not using the death penalty. “I think the way to stop the death penalty is to repeal the death penalty,” Barr said in an interview with The Associated Press. “But if you ask juries to impose and juries impose it, then it should be carried out.”
Though lower-court orders halted many of these executions at the local level, the Department of Justice overrode their verdicts and allowed several to be carried out. Montgomery had four separate cases that had been decided in her favor, two that put her execution on hold and two that requested a postponement.
Despite these rulings, the federal government argued the government is not barred from rescheduling an execution before a stay expires. The Washington, DC circuit court sided with the government and the Supreme Court denied a last-minute request for a stay of execution.
Higgs’ execution was put on hold by a Washington, DC circuit court judge, but a majority of Supreme Court Justices ruled to allow the execution to be carried out in Indiana, despite Higgs’ having been convicted in Maryland.
Three of the Supreme Court’s liberal Justices were critical of the federal executions, with Justice Sonia Sotomayor offering the harshest rebuke. Sotomayor, an Obama appointee, declared in her dissent that “This is not justice.”
Because the executions were fast-tracked in order to be carried out before Trump left office, Sotomayor argued that there had not been sufficient time to weigh the legal intricacies of the cases.
“There can be no ‘justice on the fly’ in matters of life and death,” Sotomayor added. “Yet the court has allowed the United States to execute thirteen people in six months under a statutory scheme and regulatory protocol that have received inadequate scrutiny, without resolving the serious claims the condemned individuals raised.”
Democrats bid to abolish the death penalty
One of President Joe Biden’s campaign pledges was to eliminate the death penalty. He promised to put forward legislation to eliminate executions for federal crimes and offer incentives to states that do the same.
On January 12, US Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin and US Representative Ayanna Pressley along with 70 other Democrats announced the Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act of 2021. The law would end the use of the death penalty in federal cases and send the cases of those already on death row back to court to be resentenced.
“The death penalty is deeply flawed and disproportionately imposed on Black and Brown and low-income people in America,” Durbin said. “President Trump’s resumption of the death penalty at the federal level has been a grave injustice.”
With Democrats in control of all three branches of government, abolishment of the death penalty at the federal level appears to be inevitable.
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