President Trump’s political strategists are once again abusing the power of the Administration to score points with their base while highlighting a distinction between the president and his democratic challenger. The timing of three execution dates set for next week and a fourth in August exposes the way capital punishment is being used purely as a political tool rather than for legitimate penological purposes. It also creates a far greater public health threat to the people of Terre Haute because of COVID-19.
We knew this was coming and no one should be surprised at the blatant abuse of this power.
When the president was inaugurated, we knew it was only a matter of time before Mr. Trump would order his attorney general to set federal execution dates. There had not been a federal execution during the Obama administration, and only three under President George W. Bush. Every week Mr. Trump needed a new distraction to sway public attention away from the controversy of the moment.
27 months elapsed before federal execution dates were set. True to form, executions were the perfect distraction. On July 24, 2019, special counsel Mueller testified in Congress that the president was not exculpated in Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Attorney General Barr’s announcement on July 25 that five federal execution dates had been set wiped Mueller’s visit to Congress completely out of the headlines.
But there was something far more egregious about that announcement — the timing of the execution dates. The law requires four months from when federal execution dates are set to allow for clemency considerations. After no federal executions since 2003, the Administration scheduled three in one week in December and two more in January. Sparring for the Democratic presidential nomination would be in full swing, and the primary season would begin in January.
President Trump was setting up a debate point last year, and that is exactly what he is up to now. In 2016 the Democratic Party made ending the death penalty part of its official platform. Almost incredibly, until Mayor Bloomberg’s candidacy, every other Democrat in the primary race was against executions. Even Joe Biden surprised everyone when his criminal justice proposals opposed capital punishment.
President Trump's agenda was and remains to set up a debate point where he gets to say, “You Democrats are weak on crime, and I am tough, because you oppose the death penalty and I have carried out executions.” It is not at all random that each of the prisoners chosen to help Trump establish this point are white men who had children among their victims.
Also unsurprising are Attorney General Barr’s assertions that there are no further legal impediments to executing these death sentences. Setting aside strong pending arguments in the four individual cases, the proposed execution protocol was not established through the normal government vetting process and, until Monday, June 29, remained under litigation.
The issuing of death warrants as a political tool will now force the Court to resolve issues in individual cases under the unnecessary pressure of execution dates just days from now. The government has scheduled the executions of Daniel Lee, Wesley Purkey, and Dustin Honken in rapid succession on July 13, 15, and 17, with the execution of Keith Nelson to follow on Aug. 28. These executions were set while litigation has been pending and despite serious concerns in these prisoners’ cases, including opposition to the death sentence from victims’ family members, mental competency, and compelling mitigation evidence that their juries never heard.
Now we also have the realities of COVID-19. It makes absolutely no sense and in fact it is a public health threat to bring people from across the country who are somehow connected to these cases and executions. And to schedule three different sets in one week means that while COVID-19 cases are spiking in many places, potential carriers are converging on the Terre Haute community, and will enter the prison system.
COVID-19 notwithstanding, three executions in July and another in August are intentionally timed for just before the Republican and Democratic national conventions. No matter where one stands on the issue of capital punishment, the president should not be allowed to carry out executions while putting Terre Haute at greater risk as part of his re-election campaign strategy.
Abraham Bonowitz is co-director of Death Penalty Action, a convener of the Terre Haute Death Penalty Resistance network.