Why the Biden Administration Must Abolish the Death Penalty

Capital punishment, a euphemism for the “death penalty,” has always been a racist, classist, and oppressive political weapon wielded arbitrarily to reinforce the rule of law in the United States. Yet, even as economic disparity, climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic threaten people’s lives, the Trump Administration has prioritized resuming executions in federal capital punishment cases toward the end of his term in office.

“The President has a long history of intentional ignorance and misuse of the criminal justice system.”

Under the direction of Attorney General William Barr and the Department of Justice, federal executions resumed last year for the first time since 2003, effectively ending a seventeen-year moratorium. While there was no official “ban” on the federal death penalty, several capital cases were at a legal standstill as litigation raged about execution methods (i.e., the drugs used in lethal injections, which were controlled by the Food and Drug Administration). In May 2019, Barr and the DOJ issued a unilateral order declaring that these drugs were no longer under the FDA’s regulation. Two months later, execution dates for several prisoners were scheduled.

Subsequent litigation throughout 2019 into July 2020 resulted in seals of approval from the federal district court, appellate court, and the U.S. Supreme Court to allow the executions to continue. In November, Barr’s DOJ issued yet another rule authorizing the “implementation of a sentence in a federal capital case in any manner consistent with federal law,” including lethal injection, lethal gas, electrocution, and firing squad. The final rule went into effect on December 24.

In 2020, a total of seventeen executions took place on the federal and state levels, the majority being conducted by the federal government, “which in less than six months carried out more federal civilian executions than any prior president in the twentieth or twenty-first centuries, Republican or Democratic, had authorized in any prior calendar year,” according to the Death Penalty Information Center’s Year End Report. By the time the year drew to a close, ten federal prisoners had been executed in Terre Haute, Indiana: 

  • Daniel Lewis Lee, forty-seven, was executed on July 14.
  • Wesley Ira Purkey, sixty-eight, was executed on July 16.
  • Dustin Lee Honken, fifty-two, was executed on July 17.
  • Lezmond Mitchell, thirty-eight, was executed on August 26.
  • Keith Dwayne Nelson, forty-five, was executed on August 28.
  • William Emmett LeCroy, fifty, was executed on September 22.
  • Christopher Andre Vialva, forty, was executed on September 24.
  • Orlando Hall, forty-nine, was executed on November 19.
  • Brandon Bernard, forty, was executed on December 10.
  • Alfred Bourgeois, fifty-six, was executed on December 11.  

“The executions reflected systemic problems in the application of capital punishment and drew widespread opposition from prosecutors, victims’ families, Native American leaders, religious leaders, regulatory law experts, and European Union officials,” the DPIC report reads. “In addition to the legal issues, the executions also presented public health problems, likely sparking an outbreak in a federal prison, infecting members of the execution teams, and causing two federal defense attorneys to contract COVID-19.”

The new year will commence with three federal executions scheduled this month: Lisa M. Montgomery, fifty-two (January 12), Cory Johnson, fifty-two (January 14), and Dustin John Higgs, fifty-five (January 15). The Trump Administration’s efforts to revive federal executions fits the outgoing President’s iron-fisted rhetoric encouraging police officers to use excessive force, words that manifested into action as demonstrated by the administration’s response to Black Lives Matter demonstrators last year.

“The President has a long history of intentional ignorance and misuse of the criminal justice system,” Death Penalty Focus executive director Nancy Haydt tells The Progressive in an email. “He promoted the death penalty for the [Exonerated Five], who had been framed. The President argued that he was the ‘law and order’ President, which is inconsistent with his pardon and commutation of war criminals and convicted political cronies.”

“The truth about the death penalty—its cost, its failure to deter crime, its failure to make communities safe, its failure to bring closure to victims’ families, the racist beginnings of the death penalty, the number of innocent people on death row, and who have been executed—is denied by law enforcement, district attorneys, and politicians.”

There are currently 2,591 people sitting on Death Row. Data compiled by the DPIC finds there have been 1,529 executions since 1976. Of the twenty-eight states that still allow the death penalty, the majority of executions have taken place in the South—with Texas alone claiming 570 lives during this time. Since 1973, more than 170 people have been released from Death Row after evidence of their innocence came to light.

“There is no question that the death penalty and the criminal justice system is racist and classist,” Haydt says. “There are decades of research supporting this proposition.”

Back in 2017, a panel of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations issued a joint statement recognizing the “World Day Against the Death Penalty,” observed annually on October 10, and concluded, “If you are poor, the chances of being sentenced to death are immensely higher than if you are rich.”

“People living in poverty are disproportionately affected by the death penalty for many reasons,” the statement reads. “They are an easy target for the police, they cannot afford a lawyer, the free legal assistance they might receive is of low quality, procuring expert evidence is beyond their means, tracing witnesses is too costly, and access to appeals often depends on being able to afford extra counsel. Many cannot afford bail and therefore remain in custody before their trials, further hindering their efforts to prepare an effective defence.”

In December, Worth Rises published a report titled “The Prison Industry: How It Started, How It Works, and How It Harms,” documenting in great detail the exploitation and financial gains of the prison-industrial complex. According to this report, “Our tax dollars, pension funds, and retirement accounts are all invested in the prison industry.” The report points out that, “Our favorite sports teams and cultural institutions are owned and supported by executives that build their wealth off people in cages. Even the financial aid that helps us make tuition payments is, at times, supplied by or invested in the prison industry.”

Another Worth Rises investigation from May lists 4,135 corporations, 385 of which are publicly traded companies, profiting from the incarceration of 2.3 million inmates in the United States. More than $80 billion is spent annually on the architecture, construction, maintenance, leasing, food service, training, medical care, staffing, equipment, data services, security, and other prison costs. There are also fortunes to be derived from the pockets of folks who are incarcerated, as well as their families and friends, through telephone, email, financial, commissary, and medical services costs, fees, and surcharges.

“Private corporations helped build our punishment system and continue to support its expansion by donating to tough-on-crime political candidates, shifting costs onto those it targets, offering agencies lucrative partnerships, recruiting former government officials, and more,” the May report reads.

As with the profits made from mass incarceration, Haydt says it is her opinion that there is also “strong financial incentive in preserving excessive sentencing like three-strikes, including the death penalty.”

Proponents of the death penalty often claim it is less costly to taxpayers to execute people than to incarcerate them. Unlike other trials, such as manslaughter or second-degree murder trials, the complexities and procedures accompanying capital cases make them much more expensive in terms of strain on government budgets and time for all those involved.

“The truth about the death penalty—its cost, its failure to deter crime, its failure to make communities safe, its failure to bring closure to victims’ families, the racist beginnings of the death penalty, the number of innocent people on death row, and who have been executed—is denied by law enforcement, district attorneys, and politicians,” Haydt says. “A truthful fact-based discussion would help individuals see that the death penalty does not make communities safer, does not deter crime, is vastly more expensive than life imprisonment, does not guarantee closure. It is simply a tool to get politicians elected.”

President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign platform on criminal justice reform includes working “to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example.” However, several steps taken by Biden and his transition team have deflated the sense of enthusiasm that came following his electoral victory. His cabinet picks and recent comments about delaying major changes to Trump’s immigration policies have raised concerns among progressives as to whether Biden will reverse the course steered by the Trump regime.

As President, Biden can commute death row sentences and order the Department of Justice not to seek the death penalty in any case during his presidency. Democratic Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, author of a tabled bill prohibiting “the imposition of a death penalty sentence for a violation of federal law” which could be reintroduced in the next legislative session, penned an open letter to Biden signed by forty-four current and incoming U.S. representatives, urging him to repeal the death penalty as soon as he is sworn into office.

“While eliminating the death penalty will not fix our broken criminal legal system, it is a significant step toward progress,” the letter reads. “We urge you to prioritize justice on Day One of your administration and end the use of the death penalty.”

The death penalty is emblematic of the inhumanity of the U.S. criminal justice system, where people who are incarcerated, and even those merely suspected of criminal activity, are treated as second-class citizens or as expendables to be sacrificed. Abolitionists cannot rely on the merciful graces of elected officials alone to achieve this goal, but must continue building a grassroots movement challenging the entire system perpetuating such injustices. With public support for the death penalty declining in recent years, those opposed to this tradition of injustice say now is the time to do away with “the machinery of death” once and for all.

“I see the death penalty as the pinnacle of a racist justice system,” Haydt says. “Black and brown people are ensnared by the criminal justice system at a rate and severity disproportionate to their actions, culpability, or the evidence against them. [Black Lives Matter] is finding its feet as a major political movement, and there is symbiosis between the goals of racial justice reform and abolition of the death penalty.”

This post was originally published on Radio Free.