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Trump's death penalty spree ends with Dustin Higgs, days before Biden's inauguration

As long as the death penalty exists, it will continue to serve as a funhouse mirror, warping our understanding of justice and mercy. Biden must abolish it.
Dustin Higgs at the Federal Prison in Terre Haute, Ind. in 2015.
Dustin Higgs at the Federal Prison in Terre Haute, Ind. in 2015.Courtesy Shawn Nolan Chief / Federal Bureau of Prisons via AP

Last year was, in so many ways, a deadly one. After a nearly two-decade hiatus, the machinery of the federal death penalty groaned back to life in July. As the Covid-19 pandemic hit its summer peak, overwhelming hospitals and killing hundreds every day, the federal government executed Daniel Lewis Lee. Then Wesley Purkey. Then Dustin Honken. Lezmond Mitchell. Keith Nelson. William LeCroy. Christopher Vialva. Orlando Hall. Brandon Bernard. Alfred Bourgeois. Lisa Montgomery. Thursday night, Corey Johnson was executed after the Supreme Court denied his motion for a stay. Dustin Higgs was scheduled to be executed Friday — what would have been Martin Luther King Jr.’s 92nd birthday (he ultimately died early Saturday morning.)

After a nearly two-decade hiatus, the machinery of the federal death penalty groaned back to life in July.

The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that for the death penalty to be considered constitutional, it cannot be cruel and unusual, and it cannot be arbitrarily applied. In 2002, the court ruled that executing people with intellectual disabilities was unconstitutional. Yet these protections, as history bears out, exist in name only. When we look at who the government chooses to execute, it isn’t playing by the rules.

And yet, despite the headline-grabbing bloodlust of the Trump administration, 2020 followed the pattern set in place over the last decade. Even with the federal killing spree, both executions and new death sentences fell to historic lows. A Gallup poll found that public support for the death penalty is at a near half-century low, with opposition at its highest level since the 1960s.

Like the criminal legal system writ large, the death penalty is fueled by racism. By classism. By ableism. Executions are cloaked in secrecy. When the Trump administration resumed killing by lethal injection last July, it represented the culmination of a clandestine, three-year effort to manufacture and test the lethal-injection drugs in total secrecy. In its rush to kill, the administration executed Daniel Lee in the middle of the night, after he spent four hours strapped to the gurney. The administration executed Wesley Purkey while he still had an appeal pending, without notifying his legal team.

In an attempt to make the process even more opaque than it already was, Trump administration officials have hired private executioners and paid them in cash.

But years of attempted reforms have shown us that the solution is not more transparency. The solution is not better lawyers or more relaxed timelines. The solution is painfully, achingly clear: President-elect Joe Biden must abolish the federal death penalty, once and for all.

A common thread runs through the lives of the people the government chooses to kill. The people we execute in this country — while many have done great harm — are also among the most vulnerable. All but one person executed last year had evidence of one or more of the following: serious mental illness; brain injury, developmental brain damage or an IQ in the intellectually disabled range; chronic serious childhood trauma, neglect and/or abuse. Three were teenagers at the time of their offenses. With Higgs’ death, more than half of the people executed by the Trump administration have been people of color.

Thursday night, Corey Johnson was killed by lethal injection. Johnson faced endless hurdles in his efforts to try to present evidence proving he is a person with an intellectual disability who cannot, constitutionally, be executed. Like so many others on death row, Johnson’s childhood was reportedly rife with neglect and abuse, both physical and psychological. According to his attorneys, he lived in 12 different homes before he was 13 years old, at which point he was sent to a residential facility for children with intellectual and emotional disabilities. He struggled to learn tasks like tying his shoes. His execution — like any execution — was a travesty.

Lisa Montgomery was executed in the early hours of Wednesday morning, despite suffering from brain damage from her mother’s drinking during pregnancy, multiple head injuries and the neurobiological impact of the severe torture that she experienced over her lifetime. As a young teenager, Montgomery’s lawyers say she endured unimaginable trauma at the hands of her stepfather, who frequently slammed her head into a concrete floor while raping her. Scientific imaging shows that her brain was both structurally and functionally damaged. Her execution — like any execution — was a travesty.

As organizer and attorney Talila Lewis reminded us in the Medium publication Level,“Disabled/neurodivergent people comprise just 26% of the united states population — but represent up to half of the people killed by police, over 50% of the incarcerated adult prison population, up to 85% of the incarcerated youth population, and a significant number of those incarcerated in medicalized carceral spaces.”

The death penalty is no exception.

Indeed, as long as the death penalty remains in existence, it will continue to serve as a funhouse mirror, distorting and warping our understanding of justice and mercy and of the narratives we like to tell ourselves about who we are as a country. Life without the possibility of parole — or death by incarceration — is also a travesty, yet the mere continued existence of the death penalty makes that cruelty seem like grace.

History has proven, time and again, that there is simply no way to fairly and justly administer death — the very premise of “fairly” administering state death is ludicrous. Nothing short of the full commutation of every person who remains on federal death row will prevent future bloodshed, and that is what Biden can — and must — do.