Donald Trump has added a morbid new distinction to his presidency – for the first time in US history, the federal government has in one year executed more American civilians than all the states combined.
In the course of 2020, in an unprecedented glut of judicial killing, the Trump administration rushed to put 10 prisoners to death. The execution spree ran roughshod over historical norms and stood entirely contrary to the decline in the practice of the death penalty that has been the trend in the US for several years.
The outlier nature of the Trump administration’s thirst for blood is set out in the year-end report of the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). In recentyears, the annual review has highlighted the steady withering away of executions, all of which were carried out by individual states.
That pattern continued at state level in 2020, heightened by the coronavirus pandemic which suppressed an already low number of scheduled executions. Only five states – Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas – carried out judicial killings. And only Texas performed more than one, producing the lowest number of executions by the states since 1983.
States carried out seven executions to the federal government’s 10. Despite the rash of federal killings, that still amounted to the fewest executions in the US since 1991.
Against that downward path, the actions of the Trump administration stand out as a grotesque aberration.
“The administration’s policies were not just out of step with the historical practices of previous presidents, they were also completely out of step with today’s state practices,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC executive director and lead author of its year-end report.
Part of the story was Trump’s willful refusal to take the coronavirus seriously. Unlike death penalty states, the federal government insisted on proceeding with executions. As a result, there was an eruption of Covid-19 cases at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana which the DPIC report notes infected at least nine members of execution teams.
But the overwhelming story of the federal executions in 2020 was the disdain shown by the Trump administration towards established norms, and its determination to push the death penalty to the limits of decency even by standards set by those who support the practice.
Since Trump lost the election on 3 November, the federal government has put to death three prisoners: Orlando Hall, Brandon Bernard and Alfred Bourgeois. The last time a lame-duck president presided over an execution was in 1889, when the Grover Cleveland administration killed a Choctaw Indian named Richard Smith.
All three Trump lame-duck executions involved black men. As the DPIC review points out, racial disparities remain prominent in the roll call of the dead, as they have for decades, with almost half of those executed being people of color.
The review exposes other systemic problems in the Trump administration’s choice of prisoners to kill. Lezmond Hill, executed in August, was the only Native American prisoner on federal death row. His execution ignored tribal sovereignty over the case and the objections of the Navajo Nation which is opposed to the death penalty.
The subjects of the federal rush to the death chamber included two prisoners whose offenses were committed when they were teenagers. Christopher Vialva was 19 and Bernard 18: they were the first teenage offenders sent to their deaths by the US government in almost 70 years.
The sharp contrast between the Trump administration’s aggressive stance and the dramatic reduction in executions at state level is underlined by the annual review of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP), also released on Wednesday.
Texas, traditionally the death penalty capital of America, carried out three executions this year, down from nine in 2019. The most recent was on 8 July. Billy Joe Wardlow was 18 in 1993 when he committed robbery and murder.
“The fact that state legislators, juvenile justice advocates, neuroscience experts and two jurors from Wardlow’s trial had called for a reprieve based on what we know now about adolescent brain development make the circumstances of his arbitrary execution even more appalling,” said Kristin Houlé Cuellar, TCADP executive director.
There was some good news. In March, Colorado became the 22nd state to abolish the death penalty. Louisiana and Utah have not executed anybody in 10 years.
Joe Biden, the president-elect, has vowed to eliminate the death penalty. But until he enters the White House on 20 January Trump remains in charge. Three more federal inmates are set to die – including the only woman on federal death row – before he is done.