Fifty-six days out from the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, Donald Trump’s Department of Justice announced that it will do something unprecedented: execute people on federal death row during the transition period. There are five executions scheduled before the January 20 inauguration, including one just five days before Biden is sworn in.
The DOJ, under General Attorney William Barr, ended a 17-year pause on federal executions when they resumed them last summer. In a statement released Friday, the DOJ described the upcoming executions as being for people who committed “staggeringly brutal murders.” Barr’s DOJ has already executed eight people this year, despite many states pausing due to the coronavirus pandemic. But, if these five go forward, it would mean the DOJ under Trump and Barr will have executed 13 people in just six months, which is a huge shift for federal executions that had been quite rare until last year.
The decision to continue executions during the presidential transition period is unprecedented; you’d have to go back over a century, to Grover Cleveland in 1889, to find a president who went forward with executions between an electoral defeat and the swearing-in of their successor. "What is clear is that this administration wants these prisoners dead before Joe Biden takes office," Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center Robert Dunham told CNN.
It's possible that the rush to execute people on death row before Biden’s inauguration may be because Biden his against the death penalty and hopes to end it at the federal level when he takes office. "The president-elect opposes the death penalty, now and in the future, and as president will work to end its use," transition spokesman, T.J. Ducklo, told NPR.
Among the five people scheduled to be executed before January 20 is Brandon Bernard, who will be the youngest person in nearly 70 years to be executed by the United States for a crime committed when he was a teenager. He was 18 when he and a friend were convicted of murdering two youth ministers; his accomplice, Christoper Vialva, was executed in September after he exhausted all of his appeals.
Lisa Montgomery, the only woman currently on federal death row and the first woman to be executed by the U.S. in almost 70 years, is scheduled to be executed on January 12 for killing a pregnant woman, cutting out her baby, and passing the baby off as her own.
Dustin Higgs, a Black man, was convicted of ordering a triple homicide and his execution is scheduled for Martin Luther King Day; Higgs did not actually pull the trigger in the case and the person who did received life in prison.
A Black man named Corey Johnson is also scheduled for execution on January 14. He was convicted of killing seven people as a part of a drug trade and his attorneys are arguing that Johnson has an intellectual disability that should prevent him from being eligible for execution but that no jury has heard evidence to rule on it.
Lastly, Alfred Bourgeois will be executed December 11 for the abuse and 2002 murder of his daughter. His attorney is also seeking to have his case re-tried to take an intellectual disability into account.
Despite the nature of the crimes of all five awaiting execution, advocates continue to push back on the death penalty as an inhumane form of retributivist punishment. The fact that Trump is carrying this out in his final days in office only speaks to the nature of his presidency, and where his priorities lie.
"The federal government has already presided over the executions of eight people so far this year," Hannah Riley, a spokeswoman at the Southern Center for Human Rights, told NPR. "The death penalty is always unconscionable, but it is especially egregious to carry out executions as hundreds of people are dying of COVID-19 in this country every day."