Between 1953 and 2003 the US Federal Government carried out fourteen executions. Since June 2020 it has carried out nine, most recently that of Brandon Bernard at Terre Haute Federal penitentiary in Indiana. Tonight (within hours at the time of writing) it intends to perform another (Alfred Bourgeois) and has another four scheduled before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden in January. If all goes according to plan Bernard and Bourgeois will be joined by Lisa Montgomery on January 12, Corey Johnson on January 15 and Dustin Higgs the day after Johnson.
Fourteen Federal executions within a year is not unprecedented. It last occurred in 1896 toward the end of Grover Cleveland’s second term as President. It’s still a huge break with a 130-year-old tradition of Presidents not allowing Federal executions during a Presidential transition period. Dustin Higgs is the last Federal convict to have his date set. After him there are no Federal executions currently scheduled. If death penalty-opponent Biden has his way Dustin Higgs might be the last Federal execution, period. Biden has already declared his intent to abolish the Federal death penalty but, politicians and their promises being what they are, it remains to be seen whether he actually will.
President Cleveland also has another string to his bow, being the only President to have served as an executioner. Long before entering the White House (still the only President to serve non-consecutive terms) he was Sheriff of Erie County, New York. Executing Erie County’s condemned was officially the Sheriff’s job although a Deputy Sheriff was often employed as a substitute. Deputy Jacob Emerick was dissatisfied with $10 and the rest of the day off whenever he hanged somebody. He was even less satisfied with people calling him ‘Hangman Jack’ in front of his wife and children and of being publicly shunned for doing only what the law mandated.
When Deputy Emerick quit, Sheriff Cleveland personally hanged Patrick Morrissey on September 6 1872 and John Gaffney on February 14 1873. ‘Hangman Jack’ had been replaced (none too willingly) by the Sheriff everybody knew as ‘Big Steve.’ Cleveland reportedly hated the task and was aid to be haunted by it for years afterward. While running for President his opponents called him the ‘Buffalo hangman’ and openly questioned whether a former executioner was fit for the nation’s highest office.
Returning to 2020 there remain four executions scheduled for the remainder of President Donald Trump’s term in office. If they are all carried out then Trump will have executed as many Federal prisoners as the previous thirteen Presidents combined. Beginning with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (electrocuted for espionage at Sing Sing on June 18 1953) and ending with Louis Jones, Jr (executed by lethal injection at Terre Haute on March 18 2003) there were fourteen in fifty years. If Bourgeois, Montgomery, Johnson and Higgs all die as scheduled Trump will have allowed thirteen in six months.
Aside from the obvious (they were convicted and condemned, often for crimes dreadful enough to appal any civilised human being) the obvious question is; Why? What has made President Trump decide to ignore a seemingly-ironclad tradition and push through so many executions in so short a time. After Louis Jones, Jr there had been no Federal executions for seventeen years yet almost as many convicts will have died before President-elect Biden formally assumes the Presidency on January 20.
One answer is that these convicts have all been tried, convicted and condemned. Tradition and timing aside nothing exists to stop the Federal Government from setting dates and the President denying clemency. Attorney-General William Barr has already remarked that its simply a matter of following existing law. Another is that Trump, beset by problems on all aides and frustrated in his claims to have won the recent election, is merely acting out.
Frustrated, angry and with increasingly less control over events, Trump may just be taking out his frustrations on people virtually unable to fight back and asserting one of the few remaining forms of power and control he still has while he still has it. If he can’t control losing the Presidency and with his own future looking at best bleak, is Trump simply taking revenge for his one term in office not having gone as he wanted? Once his term formally expires his own legal worries are far from over and he will still be facing multiple criminal investigations and perhaps multiple indictments. Is this year’s rash of executions the final act of revenge from a defeated, humiliated soon-to-be-ex-President?
It should never be forgotten that these felons either committed personally or were involved in the most horrendous crimes. That should never be ignored, nor should the feelings of their victims’ friends and families be simply written off as vengeance for its own sake. If they want these convicts executed then that’s hardly surprising and it doesn’t make them bad people to be written off, insulted and sneered at. That said, some of the pro-death penalty rhetoric being bandied around is as toxic as the poison shortly to flow through these felons’ veins.
Opposing the death penalty is not (and never should be) a defence of crime, condemned felons or the crimes they committed. Being anti-capital punishment is not being pro-criminal by default as is often claimed by some (not all) within the pro-execution lobby. At best an ignorant slur and at worst a cynical ploy intended to stifle debate, it’s often used by people who not only should know better but do. They know full well abolitionists don’t support or defend crime and criminals, but would rather throw mud than discuss the issue rationally.
That applies only to some of the death penalty’s more hawkish supporters, certainly not all. By no means are all death penalty supporters bloodthirsty barbarians by default, many are perfectly civilised, reasonable people who see capital punishment as an effective deterrent, a fair punishment or a necessary evil. Some are even victims themselves whose friends or relatives died at the hands of those they want executed and they can hardly be blamed for that. They don’t have to be agreed with, but their voices should still be listened to with respect for what they have suffered..
But neither are all abolitionists either too weak to want a robust justice system or actively aiding criminals by trying to weaken that system. Abolitionists are not the new Reds or the enemy within, just people who for many reasons oppose society’s choice to execute prisoners. Be their reasons moral, pragmatic, religious, philosophical or personal, to oppose a punishment does not mean condoning or supporting the criminals who face it. Criminals are exactly that, criminals and not choirboys, but disputing society’s self-conferred choice to kill neither aids nor abets criminals themselves. ‘Abolitionism or barbarism’ is a rather simplistic idea at best.
UPDATE – Alfred Bourgeois was executed after a short delay still protesting his innocence.