With fewer than 60 days until President-elect Joe Biden takes office, the Trump administration has set an unprecedented record of scheduling the most federal inmates for execution during the last leg of a presidential term.
Attorney General William Barr resumed federal executions in July 2019 after a 17-year hiatus to bring “justice to victims of the most horrific crimes.” Despite legal attempts for extensions to complete clemency petitions; requests for reprieve, commutation or clemency; and appeals to the Supreme Court, eight federal inmates have been put to death so far this year.
Five more are scheduled to be executed, two within days of Biden’s swearing-in ceremony. If all the executions are carried out, the federal government would have authorized the executions of 13 federal death row inmates in six months.
“What is clear is that this administration wants these prisoners dead before Joe Biden takes office,” Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center Robert Dunham told CNN on Monday. The only other time more than one execution happened during a transition was during Grover Cleveland’s first transition – from November 1884 to March 1885 – Dunham said.
The remaining federal inmates scheduled to die include Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row and the first to be executed by the United States in nearly 70 years; Brandon Bernard, who will be the youngest person in nearly 70 years to get executed by the United States for a crime committed when he was a teenager; and Dustin Higgs, who was convicted of ordering a triple homicide when the gunman received life in prison.
While executions are carried out every year on the state level, federal executions were extremely rare until this year. In the 1970s, the Supreme Court found that executions were unconstitutional, but the ruling was later reversed. Under the 1994 Federal Death Penalty Act, executions on the federal side were limited to specific offenses including homicide and non-homicide drug convictions.
According to federal law, the Bureau of Prisons is limited with carrying out executions “no sooner than 60 days from the entry of the judgment of death.”
The Justice Department and White House declined to comment on the urgency to schedule this number of federal executions.
The Biden campaign has spoken out against the federal death penalty, due in part to the amount of wrongfully convicted inmates who have been given these sentences.
Since 1973, 172 people who had been sentenced to death in state court were found to have been wrongfully convicted, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a national nonprofit that has tracked and studied death penalty cases across the country for 30 years. The demographics of the 172 exonerees were: 89 Black men, 63 White men, 15 Latino men, one Native American man, two other men of another race, as well as one Black woman and one White woman. No federal death row inmates have been found to have been wrongfully convicted, said Dunham.
There are currently 54 people on federal death row: 24 Black men, 21 White men, seven Latinos, one Asian and one White woman, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Of the eight who have been executed so far this year, six were White men and two were Black men.
Legal advocates from Fair and Just Prosecution included ending the federal death penalty in their list of recommendations for the Biden-Harris administration to overhaul the criminal justice system.
“As we find itself in the midst of a national reckoning with racism and our history of racial violence, ending the death penalty must be part of our transformation. Abolishing the death penalty would be a signal that the Biden-Harris administration is committed to fairness, equity, and evidence-based justice – and the time for this definitive move is long overdue,” said Miriam Krinsky, executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution and a former federal prosecutor.
According to the Biden campaign’s criminal justice plan, they intend to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level and give states an incentive to do the same.
“Without question this unprecedented execution spree makes clear that this system is in need of either abandonment of the death penalty or major overhaul. It also shows that a moratorium just kicks the can down the road,” Dunham said, adding, “Prior administrations including the Obama-Biden Administration failed to take action on these cases that created the circumstances in which you could have this thing of unparallel series of executions.”
“There’s no question that these crimes were horrific, but that’s not the issue,” Dunham said. “You can go down the list of these executions one at a time and illustrate the injustices.”
These are the remaining death row inmates who are scheduled for execution before Inauguration Day:
• Brandon Bernard, a Black man, was 18 when he, Christopher Vialva and others were convicted for the 1999 murder of a pair of youth ministers in Texas. Vialva, who was 19 at the time of the crime, was executed in September after exhausting his appeals. Bernard’s last request for a stay of execution to the Supreme Court was denied last Thursday. He’s scheduled to die on December 10 and will be the youngest person in nearly 70 years whom the US will execute for a crime committed while a teenager.
• Alfred Bourgeois, a Black man, was sentenced to death by a Texas jury for abusing, torturing and ultimately beating his daughter to death in 2002. Bourgeois’ attorney Victor Abreu said in a statement on Friday that his client is scheduled to be executed on December 11. After the Supreme Court ruled that another death row inmate cannot be executed because of his intellectual disability, Abreu is seeking to have Bourgeois’ case reheard to produce similar evidence.
• Lisa Montgomery is the first and only woman scheduled to be federally executed in nearly 70 years. Montgomery, a White woman who was convicted in 2004 for killing a pregnant woman, cutting the baby out and passing it off as her own, was granted a stay on her execution until December 31 due to her attorneys’ coronavirus diagnosis, and it is now set for January 12. The Trump administration has rejected Montgomery’s request for a reprieve.
• Corey Johnson, a Black man, is scheduled for execution on January 14 for killing seven people in 1992 as a part of a drug trade in Virginia. Johnson’s attorneys Ronald J. Tabak and Donald P. Salzman argue that no jury heard evidence to rule on his intellectual disability. According to Johnson’s attorneys, he has an IQ of 69, which would be lower than one standard offered by the Supreme Court as a guide for states weighing whether such an execution met the Constitution’s cruel and unusual punishment standards. Johnson’s co-defendant was spared a life sentence due to his own intellectual disability.
• On January 15, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, the federal government is expected to execute Dustin Higgs, a Black man who was sentenced to death “despite not killing anyone,” his attorney Shawn Nolan said in a statement after the Justice Department’s announcement on Friday. Higgs’ co-defendant and the convicted triggerman received life without parole for the 1996 killings of three women in Maryland. Higgs was convicted under a theory that even though he hadn’t pulled the trigger he had ordered the killings, his attorney said. One of the co-defendants testified that Higgs did order the shootings.