As five federal inmates are awaiting execution before President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration — including Brandon Bernard, now scheduled for Thursday, after a federal judge refused a stay of execution Tuesday — Kim Kardashian West tweeted the following to her millions of followers Monday: “Proverbs 24:11 rescue those who are unjustly sentenced to death; don’t stand back and let them die.”
But other than asking her followers to sign an online petition Nov. 29, that’s seemingly exactly what she’s done. Kardashian West hasn’t personally weighed in and asked President Donald Trump to stop these federal executions, which will mar her virtually perfect record of protecting people from grotesque punishment during this administration.
Yet, two years ago at the Criminal Justice Summit at the Jeremy Hotel in West Hollywood, Kardashian West told moderator Van Jones: "I've always said, 'Use me.' I know that I can walk into the White House and have the conversation, so I'll be the vessel."
But in an interview with The Daily Beast conducted Tuesday, former Trump impeachment lawyer Alan Dershowitz admitted he'd been on a conference call with Kardashian West over the weekend and "told her to try to reach everybody you can, not just in the White House, and to keep publicly speaking up about it," indicating she'd yet to been able to reach the president. (Dershowitz said that he doesn't know if his advocacy for Bernard had reached the president's ears either.)
It seems like Kardashian West and other advocates have reached out to the White House and been rebuffed.
It's an strange turn of events for the reality star and makeup mogul, who proved her prison reform credentials when she and her attorney went to the White House in 2018 to meet with Trump and plead Alice Marie Johnson's case, a grandmother sentenced to life without parole for drug crimes — a medieval-length punishment for answering phones for drug dealers. The president commuted Johnson's sentence in 2018 and issued her a grant of full clemency this year.
The Alice Marie Johnson’s of the world are what the Prison Policy Initiative calls the “non-non-non’s: people convicted of acts that are nonserious, nonviolent and nonsexual. And once Johnson built a 23-year record of being a model inmate, no argument for her continued incarceration remained. It was a moral strain to defend her sentence, not to disagree with it.
The reason that Kardashian West deserves real praise for her prison reform advocacy work is that she then almost immediately went beyond the non-non-non cases, demonstrating real courage by supporting the causes of people who’ve been convicted of murder.
For instance, she's worked on behalf of Kevin Cooper, who is currently incarcerated at San Quentin and was sentenced to death for allegedly murdering four people based on flimsy evidence that wasn’t checked for DNA match. She's also brought attention to the case of Ruben Gutierrez, another recipient of a death sentence who was convicted in the absence of DNA analysis on the evidence. And she was active in the case of Cyntoia Brown, who had been sentenced to at least 51 years in prison at the age of 16 after she killed a man who had been trafficking and raping her. (She was granted clemency and released in 2019, after serving 15 years.) Just last month, Kardashian West visited Julius Jones who’s on Oklahoma’s death row.
Kardashian West, then, knows her power in this world.
Kardashian West needs to assure people that maintaining her social justice branding is less important than becoming the bulldog she needs to be.
Given Dershowitz's statements, it seems like Kardashian West and other advocates have reached out to the White House and been rebuffed; sources close to the president told The Daily Beast that he is "excited" about the upcoming executions and wishes to conduct as many as possible before leaving office.
If that’s the case, then Kardashian West’s next move should be to out him — and admit that her social justice power isn’t without limits. During this administration's unprecedented use of the death penalty, she needs to assure people that maintaining her social justice branding is less important than becoming the bulldog she needs to be when people are lined up to die during the last days of Trump’s presidency.
Kardashian's cryptic Twitter message Monday has company in its quietude: President-elect Joe Biden hasn't openly condemned the flurry of executions, though he's promised to resume the moratorium when he takes office. While it’s true that they can’t unilaterally stop the current administration from killing these five people, it’s still a bad look not to at least demand a halt to them — especially for a former prosecutor (turned vice president elect, Kamala Harris) and one of the authors of the crime bill that launched decades of uncontrolled incarceration (Biden). They campaigned as anti-death penalty candidates but they haven’t even Tweeted their opposition to what’s happening.
Biden and Harris’ betrayal, though, will hurt anti-death penalty advocates less than Kardashian West’s because she is more likely to get through to Trump than they are. Johnson sought clemency for decades; Kardashian West turned it around in less than a week. Along with attorneys Brittney K. Barnett and MiAngel Cody, she helped get 17 people out of custody in less than 90 days when many inmates wait months to have one motion heard. The DNA testing in Cooper’s case was withheld for years; former California Gov. Jerry Brown finally ordered it just months after Kardashian tweeted a request to him (although it still hasn’t been done). The U.S. Supreme Court stayed Gutierrez’s death sentence earlier this year. She convinced Tennessee Gov.Bill Haslam to commute Brown’s sentence after the parole board split on the decision to release her.
Not only that, she’s reportedly planning a career as a criminal defense attorney.
It’s important to remember that Kardashian West’s never been an abolitionist; she’s committed to fairness more than she is freedom. And sometimes fairness is freedom — but other times it’s not. Release for some of these prisoners is a tough sell even for someone who can "break the internet." But fairness can be achieved by allowing them to live.
I think Trump will listen to her — if his staff lets him. He’s still considers himself a candidate, and is planning rallies and, ostensibly, a future run in 2024. Support for the death penalty is at an all-time low. Besides, he clearly can’t resist the praise of celebrities.
But even if he doesn’t sit down with her, Kardashian West needs to try a little harder. Tweeting scripture doesn’t save lives.