The death penalty has been in decline for a number of years. Trump, however, had reversed this towards the end of his presidency, becoming the most prolific execution president in over a century after he restarted federal executions following a 17-year hiatus. He sentenced 13 individuals to their deaths, going against the trend of public opinion as support of the death penalty decreased to its lowest levels in more than half a century.
The final inmate to have been executed was the sole female on death row, a woman named Lisa Montgomery. She was imprisoned for killing a pregnant woman after cutting out her baby in Missouri in 2004. While undoubtedly a terrible crime, further details surrounding her life reveal deep-rooted psychological damage and mental health problems. Throughout childhood, Lisa suffered repeated physical and sexual abuse, with one incident giving her a serious brain injury. During her crime, after cutting out the baby – which managed to survive the ordeal – she spent numerous hours with the child pretending it was her own.
Sandra Babock, faculty director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide and a consultant to Montgomery’s lawyers described Lisa as, “not the worst of the worst – she is the most broken of the broken.” Similar cases have passed through the American judicial system in recent times, however, none resulted in death row sentences besides Montgomery’s case. Her death sentence was very controversial and it was this same controversy which characterised the other federal executions that Donald Trump fast-tracked through the system.
The other cases include Dustin Higgs, who rejected claims he murdered three women throughout his time in prison, using his final words to assert that he did “not order the murders.” He was part of a triple date with three women which resulted in their tragic murder. Higgs was convicted due to his role in kidnapping and overseeing the murder, however, the man who committed the three murders was given life in prison. Another case was that of Brandon Bernard, who was 18 when he kidnapped and murdered a woman. He recently became the youngest offender to be executed by the federal government in 70 years. Since his conviction, five of the nine jurors and a US attorney – who defended the death sentence at the time – came forward and publicly called for his execution to be stopped.
These cases were not selected at random. They were consciously selected by Donald Trump and his team which poses the question: Why did they deliberately choose such controversial cases? The executions began around the time that polls started to suggest that Biden would win the election. Biden had previously declared that he planned to start overturning the death penalty during his presidency, so Trump’s perverse execution spree may have been a final chance to assert his views. Additionally, Trump has always used controversiality to gather attention through the media and press and the press coverage he has received for the executions is vast. While this strategy is one thing when it comes to his Twitter posts, using it when executing human beings is deeply horrifying.
The American death penalty has a racist past, and the legacy of this history is still apparent today through the racial disparities in those on death row. The death penalty is a direct descendant of the lynchings used to terrorise Black Americans following the reconstruction. By the early 1900s, the nature of these murders was seen as undermining the American image, therefore states began turning lynchings into legalised executions to preserve a more ordered image of justice. Trump’s alignment with the death penalty towards the end of his presidency reinforces the racism he has consistently displayed through his actions and words.
What does Biden’s presidency mean for the death penalty in America? Will he try and appease the Republicans by continuing the use of federal executions, or follow through with his previous statements and roll back the death penalty’s usage. Only time will tell, but we can hope that more thought and compassion is given to those on death row now Trump is gone.
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