Even as COVID-19 slows justice system, federal executions outnumber all states combined for the first time

Kevin Johnson
 
| USA TODAY

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Trump continues federal executions amid transition

The Trump administration is pressing forward with its unprecedented series of post-election federal executions this week, reigniting a debate on social media over death penalty laws in the United States. (Dec. 11)

While COVID-19 has exacted a crushing death toll in the U.S., the pandemic also has slowed the criminal justice system, driving down death sentences and executions across the country, according to an annual report by the Death Penalty Information Center.

The 17 total executions this year are the lowest since 1991, while 18 death sentences issued represent a 42% decline from the previous record low of 31 in 2016, according to the report by the group, which opposes capital punishment.

“Most of these sentences (11) were imposed in the first three months of 2020, before courts across the country halted trials as a precaution against the pandemic,” the report found. “Nearly all the death sentences imposed after that time involved judge-only proceedings.”

It is also the first time the federal government has carried out more civilian executions – 10 – than all state systems combined. Three more federal prisoners have death dates set in January, an unusual move by the Trump administration in a time of presidential transition. 

“The sheer number of executions set the Trump administration apart as an outlier in the use of capital punishment, compared both to the historical practices of American presidencies and the contemporary practices of the states in the Union,” the report said.

The federal government dramatically revived its use of the death penalty after a 17-year hiatus. Not since the 1896 Cleveland administration has any president carried out more (16) in a single year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. 

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Earlier this month, a coalition of 90 current and former law enforcement officials called on federal authorities to halt five executions scheduled during the final weeks of the Trump administration, saying the uncertain transition period and resurgence of the pandemic risk undermined confidence in the criminal justice system.

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“When people believe the state is executing a person, or applying the death penalty unjustly … their trust in our system of government and law enforcement is undermined,” the officials said in an open letter released by the group Fair and Just Prosecution.

The opposition group, which includes current and former prosecutors, state attorneys general, police chiefs and sheriffs, argued that the slate of executions appeared to represent a “rush” against the clock ticking down on President Donald Trump’s tenure despite the formidable health risks posed by the virus.

President-elect Joe Biden, who is set to take office Jan. 20, opposes capital punishment. 

Last month, the execution date for Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row, was moved from its original date of Dec. 8 to Jan. 12 after her lawyers contracted the virus. 

Attorney General William Barr, who was instrumental in pushing for the reopening of the federal death chamber, has been largely unmoved by criticism of its aggressive application even in the midst of a pandemic. Barr announced Monday that he would resign effective Dec. 23. His departure follows a series of differences with Trump. 

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“Resuming executions in the midst of a deadly pandemic forced attorneys, religious advisors, media witnesses, and victims’ family members to choose between attending executions and protecting their health,” the Death Penalty Information Center’s report said.

As death sentences and executions declined in much of the rest of the country this year, Colorado became the 22nd state to abolish capital punishment.

As part of the decision, Gov. Jared Polis in March also commuted the sentences of the three prisoners on Colorado’s death row to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Polis, a Democrat, called the abolition of the death penalty “consistent with the recognition that the death penalty cannot be, and never has been, administered equitably in the State of Colorado.”

Including Colorado, the report found that 34 states have “either abolished capital punishment or have not carried out an execution in more than a decade.”

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