In the last days of his office, Trump orders a series of executions

By Holly Honderich
BBC News, Washington

Attorney General William Barr and President Donald Trump will hold a signing ceremony to sign an implementing ordinance establishing a task force on missing and murdered Native Americans and Alaskan natives.

image copyrightDrew Angerer

captionAttorney General Barr ordered five executions during the presidential transition

With President Donald Trump’s days in the White House, the administration is going through a series of federal executions.

Five executions are planned ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden on January 20 – breaking the 130-year precedent for suspending executions amid a presidential transition.

And if all five take place, Mr. Trump will be the country’s most successful execution president in more than a century, overseeing the execution of 13 people sentenced to death since July this year.

The five executions are set to begin this week, starting with Brandon Bernard, 40, and Alfred Bourgeois, 56. Both are scheduled to be killed at a penitentiary in Terre Haute, India.

Attorney General William Barr said his justice department is simply complying with current laws. But critics say the move is worrying, barely a few weeks before Mr Biden – who said he was trying to abolish the death penalty – took office.

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“It really goes beyond the norm, in a rather extreme way,” said Ngozi Ndulue, research director at the non-party death penalty information center.

Here’s what you need to know about President Trump’s last-minute execution.

What is the current policy in the United States?

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the federal death penalty in 1988, U.S. federal executions have remained rare.

Prior to Trump’s inauguration, there were only three federal executions during this period.

All of this was carried out under Republican President George W Bush, and there was also a prisoner, Timothy McVeigh, who was convicted of the federal building bombing in Oklahoma City. Since 2003, there have been no federal executions at all.

image copyrightSOPA Images
captionMost federal executions are carried out here at the Terre Haute Federal Correctional Facility in Indiana.

U.S. states have continued to execute inmates in state prisons, sentencing a total of 22 death row inmates last year. But public executions also show a declining trend.

More and more people have moved to abolish the death penalty together, and the majority have either formally banned the practice or have not sentenced any detainees to death for more than a decade.

Public opinion also deviated from the death penalty. According to a November 2019 Gallup survey, 60% of Americans have supported life imprisonment for the first time since the survey began more than 30 years ago.

“Public support for the death penalty has been low for decades.” said Ms. Ndulue.

Other problems arose with methods of execution, procurement of drugs for lethal injections, and the cost of decades of court battles and appeals.

What did the Trump administration do?

In July 2019, despite prevailing practice and public opinion, Mr. Barr announced the planned execution of five death row inmates.

“Congress has explicitly authorized the death penalty,” the country’s chief legal officer said at the time. “The Department of Justice upholds the rule of law – and we owe it to the victims and their families to continue the punishment imposed by our justice system.”

Selected detainees have been convicted of killing or raping children and the elderly, Mr. Barr said.

The move has provoked fierce criticism from top Democrats and human rights groups.

“We feel it [the death penalty] an unconstitutional arbitrary punishment that should have been abolished decades ago, ”said Lisa Cylar Barrett, political director of the NCAAP Legal Protection Fund.

media captionThe women who were sentenced to death were prisoners

And the specific selection of detainees fueled accusations that were politically motivated.

The first executions of the summer – during a wave of anti-racism demonstrations and demonstrations – were all white men. Four of the five prisoners planned for death are African American.

Ms. Ndulue said it was no coincidence that black federal prisoners were not designed for execution with “increased awareness of racial differences around the federal death penalty.”

Research shows that the death penalty has been carried out differently by species.

“One of the most defining findings of post-study studies in the country’s legal system is that your victim’s race is a major factor in deciding whether or not to receive the death penalty,” Ms. Ndulue said.

What’s happening now?

If the executions of Brandon Bernard and Alfred Bourgeois continue as planned, the 10 inmates executed in 2020 will bring a total of one year in modern history.

“We have to go back to 1896 to find another year where ten or more executions took place,” Ms. Ndulue said.

image copyrightCourtesy of Bernard Defense Team
captionThe campaigns seek to prevent the execution of Brandon Bernard

The Trump administration has also decided to carry out federal executions in the midst of a political transition, with a lame duck president for the first time in more than a century.

Presidents in office have typically postponed their predecessors, allowing elected presidents to set the direction.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Mr Barr defended post-election executions and said he was likely to schedule even more before leaving the justice department.

“I think the way to abolish the death penalty is to abolish the death penalty,” he said. “But if you ask the juries to be imposed, you have to do it.”

But this is a controversial choice, especially since the incoming Biden administration has said it will work to abolish the death penalty.

The first planned implementation, Bernard, received special attention. Convicted of murder and kidnapping in 1999, Bernard was 18 at the time of his crime and was the youngest criminal by the federal government in nearly 70 years.

Five of the nine surviving jurors in the case, as well as a U.S. lawyer who defended the death sentence on appeal, publicly called for its execution to be stopped.

Kim Kardashian also considered and made a direct call to Mr. Trump on Twitter.

What is Biden’s policy on the death penalty?

Mr Trump has long been a strong advocate of the death penalty. The Biden team opposes.

In particular, elected Vice President Kamala Harris is a constant critic of the practice. He took a stand against the death penalty in his successful campaign with a San Francisco district attorney in 2003 and rejected the death penalty for the murder of a 29-year-old police officer who was killed under his duty – despite pressure from his party. .

image copyrightGetty Images
captionSenator Joe Biden at the time expressed support for the death penalty in the 1990s.

The record of the elected president is more uneven.

Mr. Biden’s 1994 crime bill reported about 60 federal crimes for which someone could be killed. Some of those sentenced to death today were convicted under the provisions of his law. He has now promised to push for legislation to end federal executions altogether, and to encourage states to do the same.

The Biden team noted that more than 160 people sentenced to death in the United States since 1973 were later released. Mr Biden has not yet named his election as US Attorney General.

media captionThere are five ways to execute in the US – in 45 seconds

Detainees facing execution

  • Brandon Bernard was convicted in 1999 of the abduction and murder of two youth ministers, Todd and Stacie Bagley. He is scheduled for execution on December 10, amid calls for pardon due to his young age at the time of the crime.
  • Alfred Bourgeois sentenced to death for torturing and beating his two-year-old daughter. The execution is scheduled for December 11. An earlier date of execution was suspended by a federal judge because of evidence from the bourgeois legal team that he had an intellectual disability. This verdict was overturned in October.
  • Lisa Montgomery strangled a pregnant woman in Missouri before cutting and abducting the baby in 2004. It is scheduled for execution on January 12. His lawyers said he suffered a heart attack from his beating as a child and suffered from severe mental illness. She will be the first woman to be executed in the United States since 1953.
  • Cory Johnson He was convicted of killing seven people in connection with the drug trade in Richmond, Virginia. Johnson’s legal team has argued that he suffers from an intellectual disability linked to the physical and emotional abuse he experienced as a child. His execution is scheduled for January 14.
  • Dustin John Higgs In 1996, he was convicted of the abduction and murder of three young women in Washington DC. He did not kill any of Higgs’ victims. His companion, Willis Haynes, did so after being instructed by Higgs. Haynes said in court documents that Higgs did not threaten or force him to shoot. Higgs ’implementation is scheduled for Jan. 15.

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