Sister Helen Prejean, one of the world’s best known anti-death-penalty activists, says the spate of federal executions carried out by the Trump administration reflect a “fundamental flaw” in the law, which does not set limits on use of the death penalty. “When you give absolute power over life and death to government officials, they can really do what they want,” she says. We also speak with Sandra Babcock, faculty director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, who says there is “a paroxysm of violence” coming from the Trump administration.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, the Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Death by firing squad, electrocution or poison gas? Under a new rule filed by the Trump administration, these methods can now be used to carry out executions for federal death sentences in addition to lethal injection. The amendment to the Manner of Federal Executions Rule was entered Friday into the Federal Register and goes into effect Christmas Eve. That’s December 24th.
This comes as the Trump administration has already executed eight people in the past five months. Earlier this month, it executed Orlando Hall at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. Hall was an African American man sentenced to die by an all-white jury. Prior to this year, the federal government had not executed anyone since 2003, 17 years ago. Now, in what critics say is a dramatic deviation from historical practices, five more people are scheduled to be executed during Trump’s final weeks in office, three of them just days before President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated, including the first woman in nearly 70 years.
The Death Penalty Information Center reports it has been more than a century since a federal execution was conducted during a lame-duck presidency, in 1889 during the outgoing administration of Grover Cleveland. The Justice Department has not yet said whether it will try to use any methods other than lethal injection for the three executions it scheduled after the new rules takes effect. President-elect Joe Biden said during the election campaign he now supports eliminating the federal death penalty. Biden co-authored legislation in 1990 that expanded the federal death penalty.
For more, we are joined by Sister Helen Prejean, one of the world’s most well-known anti-death penalty activists, the author of the best-selling book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty. Her most recent book, River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey. Also with us, Sandra Babcock, faculty director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide. We Welcome you both back to Democracy Now! Sister Helen Prejean, let’s begin with you. This was filed on Friday, that the Trump administration, that the federal government can kill prisoners, expanding it to poison gas, firing squad or electrocution. Can you respond?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: I think the reason they are doing that is they want to make sure that they can expedite these executions without any court cases about lethal injection. There have been questions about lethal injection, the drugs that are used. This is the fault of the Supreme Court, by the way, which has allowed states to just experiment widely with drugs to kill people, which has resulted in botched executions. It may also come from the fact that autopsy reports, 200 of them, of those who have been lethally injected showed that there was a massive amount of fluid in their lungs, which meant they were drowning. I think it’s the callous brute force of the mentality of the Trump administration that he just believes that he can use force and kill people. He can use violence and force to make his point. There is no need for these executions to happen.
To me, it just reveals a fundamental flaw which has been built into the death penalty from the time that the Supreme Court put death back, in 1976. And here is the fundamental flaw, and the federal executions that we see now really exemplifies it: there was a weak criteria that only “the worst of the worst” should be killed, and nobody really knows what that means. And so there has been wide latitude in determining “worst of the worst.” Or even the assumption that out of all the ordinary murders, whatever that means, there are some who can be targeted as “but this is the worst of the worst.”
So with a weak criteria, it is coupled with that you give complete discretion to pursue death to the prosecutors. It is a fact that if prosecutors do not seek death, people don’t die from executions. So here you have now in the jurisdiction of the federal government, Attorney General Barr, who has the power to seek death, and pursuing it. All he had to do was get a signal from Trump; we gonna start killin’ people. And there has been no way to stop him.
So the fundamental flaw is a weak fuzzy criteria that was never clear in the first place, coupled with discretion of prosecutors. And it exemplifies exactly why we need to shut the death penalty down. You can’t let frail, politically-driven individuals decide “you, you and you are going to die” for whatever political objective they have in mind.