Historic lame-duck executions should spark debate

Jan 4, 2021


Commentary: COVID-19 has temporarily saved the life of Lisa Montgomery, but the Trump administration is working furiously to see that she dies before he leaves office.


Much has been written about the last-minute pardons being granted by Donald Trump during his final days as president. Nicholas Slatten, who was convicted of first-degree murder in the deaths of 14 unarmed civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, was one of those who benefitted from Trump’s decision to circumvent normal procedures for reviewing and granting pardons.


But far less has been reported about the men and women being put to death in our name by this defeated leader.


In July, the Trump administration announced that the federal government would resume executions after a 16-year pause. The Obama administration had ordered a halt and review in 2014 after the horrific, botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma. 


The federal review is done, and the nation is ready to get back to work putting people to death, Trump Attorney General William Barr announced last summer. And they already had five people lined up to be the first to die.


Daniel Lewis Lee was the first to be executed, on July 14. Lee’s lawyer claimed that he played a minor role in the crime, and the judge at his trial said another man was the “ringleader.” 


Those protests hardly mattered. Once the federal death chamber was up and running, they started making up for lost time. Wesley Ira Purkey was executed on July 16, followed by Dustin Lee Honken one day later.


Lezmond Charles Mitchell and Keith Dwayne Nelson were both put to death in August. William Emmett LeCroy Jr. and Christopher Andre Valva followed in September. 


Losing the election has only made Trump more determined to finish the job. Orlando Cordia Hall was put to death on Nov. 19, followed by Brandon Bernard on Dec. 10, and Alfred Bourgeois on Dec. 11. All three men killed since Trump’s election loss were black.


Three more executions are scheduled before Trump leaves office, including Montogomery’s. She was originally scheduled to be put to death last month, but the execution was postponed after her attorney caught COVID-19 while meeting with her in prison. The U.S. Court of Appeals has now cleared the way for her execution on Jan. 12, when she will be the first woman put to death by the federal government in nearly 70 years. 


The last time a lame duck president carried out executions was in 1889. By the time he is done, Trump will have presided over more civilian executions during the transition period than any president in our nation’s history.


Much of the damage being done in the final days of this administration can and will be undone by new President Joe Biden. But not this.


It is understandable that news of these executions is buried beneath the swirl of daily outrages, but we need to understand what’s happening, and decide if we agree with it.


We’ve had this uneasy ceasefire in recent years based on the idea that we can’t execute people because we couldn’t find the right mix of toxic chemicals. That was always a lame excuse that put off addressing the issue: Do we want to give our government the power to kill its residents?


If the answer is yes, then Trump should be commended. But if the answer is no, we should change our laws. Clearly, relying on the judgement and compassion of wise and benevolent leaders is a hit-or-miss proposition.