The Trump administration’s execution spree has provoked outrage from advocates, who are now lobbying President-elect Joe Biden ban the federal death penalty.
The Trump administration executed Lisa Montgomery in the early hours of Wednesday morning, the first federal execution of a woman since 1953 and 11th life ended in just six months as part of an unprecedented killing campaign carried out by Trump’s Department of Justice.
Montgomery, the only female on federal death row, was executed for murdering a pregnant woman, cutting open her womb, and abducting her baby in 2004, despite objections by her legal team that her mental condition left her incompetent and unable to understand what was happening to her.
According to her lawyers, Montgomery, 52, suffered from brain damage and mental illness, including bipolar disorder and complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and was sexually trafficked by her mother and raped as a child by her stepfather and his friends. In the days before her execution, she experienced auditory hallucinations of her abusive mother’s voice and believed God was talking to her through puzzles, her attorneys wrote in a court filing prior to her death.
Kelley Henry, Montgomery’s attorney, blasted the execution and those who pushed for her client’s death, despite evidence documenting her brain damage. “The craven bloodlust of a failed administration was on full display tonight,” Henry said in a statement on Wednesday. “The government stopped at nothing in its zeal to kill this damaged and delusional woman.”
The Trump administration’s killing spree has provoked outrage from criminal justice reform advocates, lawyers, and many Democrats, who are now pushing President-elect Joe Biden, who opposes the death penalty, to enact a complete federal ban.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), the incoming chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) are introducing legislation that would end capital punishment at the federal level and require the resentencing of all federal inmates on death row.
“There are three lives that hang in the balance this week alone,” Pressley told NPR, which first reported the legislation. “This is why we reintroduced this bill this week and are urging Congress to act immediately to pass it. State-sanctioned murder is not justice.”
The two other people Pressley referred to are Corey Johnson and Dustin Higgs, whose executions were scheduled for Thursday and Friday respectively. Both have been temporarily blocked by a federal judge after the men tested positive for COVID-19. If those stays are overruled by a higher court before Trump leaves office, however, Johnson and Higgs could be the final victims of an ugly spree of legalized state violence.
The run of executions is all the more startling because they came after a 17-year pause in federal executions. If the Trump administration succeeds in its quest to kill Johnson and Higgs, they will have executed 13 individuals in just six months, compared to just 37 between 1927 and 2019.
Durbin called the string of executions “unconscionable” and highlighted the fact that many Americans are wrongly convicted and sent to death row. “Because of DNA and other methods of investigation, we have discovered that many people who have been sentenced to death were innocent,” Durbin told NPR.
Since 1973, 173 former death-row prisoners have been exonerated of all charges stemming from the wrongful convictions that put them on death row. “We got it wrong,” Durbin said of those cases. “The system of justice failed.”
Critics of the death penalty also point to the massive racial disparities in who is put to death. Studies and analyses show that inmates convicted of killing white people receive tougher sentences than those who have killed Black victims. This disparity is particularly visible in cases involving interracial killings.
Since 1976, nearly 300 Black defendants have been put to death for murdering white victims, while only 21 white defendants have been executed in that time for killing Black victims according to data from the NAACP. This difference exists even though white people have made up both the majority of defendants executed (56%) and victims (76%) during those years.
In general, Black people are disproportionately likely to be sentenced to death, making up 34% of all inmates executed since 1976, despite comprising roughly 13% or less of the US population during the entire span.
These types of racial disparities have come under scrutiny in recent months, following the police killing of George Floyd, an event that led to widespread protests and calls for reform to the nation’s policing and criminal justice systems.
“While we’re in the midst of this national reckoning on racial justice, abolishing the death penalty must be a part of that discourse but also our legislative actions,” Pressley told NPR.
Durbin added, “If we truly believe that all lives matter, and Black lives matter, and brown lives matter and the lives of poor people matter, it’s time for us to make sure that our system of justice reflects that.”
Opponents of the death penalty also point to the disproportionate rates of incarceration and execution of those with mental illnesses. An estimated 37% of federal and state prisoners and 44% of jail inmates have been told in the past by a mental health professional that they had a mental disorder, according to a 2017 report from the Department of Justice.
“When you look at the numbers of people with mental illnesses who are incarcerated in this country, whether in jails or in prisons, they’re astronomical,” Ron Honberg, the former Director of Policy and Legal Affairs at National Alliance on Mental Illness, told COURIER last year. “But most of those are people who have been charged with nonviolent misdemeanors or non-violent felonies—many of whom were in desperate need of treatment before they committed the acts that led to their incarceration but didn’t get the treatment they needed.”
For some of these individuals, their incarceration ends only when they are put to death. In 2020, 16 of the 17 prisoners executed by state governments displayed serious mental illness, brain injury, developmental brain damage, an IQ in the intellectually disabled range, chronic serious childhood trauma, neglect, and/or abuse, according to a December report from the Death Penalty Information Center.
Pressley said that she has been in “active conversation” with the Biden-Harris transition team about the issue, telling NPR she is “very optimistic” about the chances of passing her bill.
Biden opposes the death penalty and his presidential campaign said he would “work to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example.” These individuals should instead be sentenced to life without parole or probation, his campaign platform read.
The Senate will be equally split, 50-50, among the two parties, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris serving as the tiebreaker and giving Democrats control of the chamber.
It’s unclear whether Republicans would back a proposal to end the death penalty, but the general public is increasingly opposed to capital punishment. Only 55% of Americans support the death penalty, the lowest percentage in nearly 50 years, according to an October 2020 Gallup poll. It’s worth noting, however, that support among self-identified Republicans has remained virtually unchanged since 2000 and currently sits at 79%.
Any legislation will take time, however, and until then, Pressley and others, including anti-death penalty advocate Sister Helen Prejean, are calling on Biden to halt all federal executions as soon he takes office on Jan. 20.
“DOJ lawyers should be instructed to stop arguing in support of the death penalty on appeal and the DOJ capital punishment division should be disbanded right away,” Prejean added in another tweet.
Ultimately though, it will require legislation to truly end federal executions and prevent a future president from going on a Trump-like spree.