The Trump administration is rushing to execute an unprecedented number of people before President-elect Joe Biden, an opponent of the death penalty, takes office on January 20.
Unless he grants requests for commutations, President Trump will leave office having set a grim record for overseeing the most executions of federal prisoners during a presidential transition period in U.S. history, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The Trump administration has already executed eight people by lethal injection since July, when the federal government resumed executions after a 17-year hiatus.
On Friday, one day after carrying out the first federal execution under a “lame duck” president in 131 years, the Department of Justice announced its intention to execute three more people incarcerated at the Terre Haute federal prison in Indiana. This brings the total number of people scheduled to be executed before Trump leaves office to five, including Lisa Montgomery, a survivor of extreme sexual violence who suffers from mental illness and would be the first woman to be executed on the federal level in nearly six decades.
“We’re really in the middle of an unprecedented execution spree,” said Allison Cohen, a spokesperson for the anti-death penalty group Death Penalty Action, in an interview.
The last time a federal execution was carried out under a “lame duck” president was in 1889, after President Grover Cleveland lost his first bid at reelection, the Death Penalty Information Center reports. The seven executions carried out by the Trump administration in the four-month period leading up to the November elections outnumber those carried out by any presidential administration over the past 78 years. At the same time, states are on pace to perform the fewest number of executions in nearly four decades.
Cohen said the federal executions already carried out since July “line up perfectly” with the campaign season, allowing the Trump campaign to boast about the president’s supposed “law and order” credentials. A regulation proposed by the Trump administration on Wednesday would allow the federal government to execute people by methods besides lethal injection — including by firing squad, according to Death Penalty Action.
“From what we can tell, this has been just another way for Trump to break a record and have something to email his followers,” Cohen said.
While a majority of Americans prefer life sentences in prison to the death penalty, 58 percent of Republicans still support killing incarcerated people, according to a 2019 Gallup poll. Meanwhile, a growing number of advocates are pushing for an end to both the death penalty and life-without-parole sentences, which they call “death by incarceration.”
Biden has said he opposes the death penalty and will work to end capital punishment on the federal level, as well as provide incentives for the 28 states that still allow the death penalty to change their laws, according to Cohen. The Trump administration, Cohen said, appears to be pushing to execute people before Biden has a chance to reverse decisions made by the Department of Justice or grant them commutations — which would spare the prisoners’ lives, but would not absolve them of guilt or free them from prison.
Of all the current death row cases, Montgomery’s has gained the most attention as she is the first woman to face a federal execution in decades. Before her incarceration, Montgomery was traumatized by years of horrific sexual violence and abuse and developed severe mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder with psychotic features and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to advocates and her sister, Diane Mattingly.
When Montgomery committed the crime that she would be sentenced to death for, she feared losing her four children in a custody battle with her stepbrother and ex-husband, who had raped Montgomery and her children for years, according to Mattingly.
“The threat of losing her children, combined with the years of untreated trauma and severe mental illness, pushed Lisa over the edge,” Mattingly recently wrote in Newsweek. “In the haze of her mental illness, she went to the home of a pregnant woman, killed her, and removed the baby. Lisa then took the baby home and cared for her as though she was her own. The crime itself shows that Lisa had lost all touch with reality.”
While some states have considered banning the death penalty for people with mental illness, no such ban has been enacted. Montgomery’s execution was originally scheduled for December 8, and last week civil rights attorneys filed a lawsuit against the Justice Department alleging Montgomery is being held in “torturous conditions” for a mentally ill person who has endured years of “sexual terror,” as many of her belongings were taken away after her execution date was set, including pictures of her children, and she was placed in a solitary cell to await death.
A federal judge issued a brief stay on Montgomery’s execution last week because her attorneys were sickened by coronavirus and could not assist with her plea for a sentence commutation. However, Montgomery could be put to death as soon as January. Currently, a coalition of 1,000 advocates, including mental health and women’s rights activists, are pleading with the Trump administration to grant Montgomery clemency and spare her life.
Activists are also scrambling to save the lives of Alfred Bourgeois, Cory Johnson, Dustin Higgs and Brandon Bernard, the four men scheduled to die before Biden takes office. All of them are Black.
Johnson’s attorneys have argued that he has an intellectual disability, and it would be unconstitutional to put him to death, because the Supreme Court has ruled against killing people with low IQs. Bernard was convicted and sentenced for being an accomplice to murder — he did not commit the murder himself and was only 18 years old at the time. A former prosecutor who tried his case and originally defended the death verdict is now calling for mercy.
As the Trump administration moves to execute people before Biden takes over the Justice Department, activists are also sounding the alarm for Billie Allen, a death row inmate at risk of being added to the list of upcoming executions. Allen, who is also Black, was convicted of robbing and murdering a security guard in 1997, but his supporters say the trial was botched and the government may kill an innocent man. Eric Montroy, Allen’s attorney, said Allen’s legal case “has been beset by injustice.”
“He has professed his innocence and sought DNA testing for many years, and the government is in possession of DNA evidence that could be instrumental in proving his innocence,” Montroy said in a statement. “Yet the government has fought off every effort to test the DNA. No person should face execution where such important questions are within easy reach, yet remain unanswered.”
Cohen wonders if the Justice Department is sacrificing incarcerated people so Trump can broadcast to his fans that he is a “rough and tough executioner.”
“For a while, these executions lined up perfectly with campaign season,” Cohen said.
This story has been updated.