Attorney General William Barr has now brought back the death penalty, and the U.S. government will execute federal death row inmates for the first time since 2003. This was announced by the Justice Department Thursday, bringing back a seldom-used punishment pushed by President Donald Trump and escalating another divisive issue ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
Five inmates who have been sentenced to death are scheduled to be executed starting in December — all within a six-week period. By comparison, there have been only three executions since the federal death penalty was restored in 1988 and only 37 overall from 1927 to 2003.
In 2014, following a botched state execution in Oklahoma, then-President Barack Obama directed the department to conduct a review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal injection drugs. This was seen as a huge disappointment by many liberals and Democrats.
That review has been completed, the department said, and it has cleared the way for executions to resume.
In a statement, Attorney General William Barr said the “Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”
Barr approved a new procedure for lethal injections that replaces the three-drug cocktail previously used in federal execution with a single drug, pentobarbital. This is similar to the procedure used in several states, including Georgia, Missouri and Texas.
Though there hasn’t been a federal execution since 2003, the Justice Department has continued to approve death penalty prosecutions and federal courts have sentenced defendants to death.
There are 61 people on the federal death row, according to Death Row USA, a quarterly report of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Some of the highest-profile inmates on federal death row include Dylann Roof, who killed nine black church members during a Bible study session in 2015 at a South Carolina church, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who set off bombs near the Boston Marathon’s finish line in 2013, killing three people and wounding more than 260.
The decision to resume carrying out the death penalty is likely to magnify an issue already debated in the Democratic primary and create a flashpoint between that party’s nominee and Trump in the general election.
Most Democrats oppose capital punishment. Former Vice President Joe Biden this week shifted to call for the elimination of the federal death penalty after years of supporting it. The lone Democratic White House hopeful who has publicly supported preserving capital punishment in certain circumstances is Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who has said he would leave it open as an option for major crimes such as terrorism.
By contrast, Trump has spoken often — and sometimes wistfully — about capital punishment and his belief that executions serve as both an effective deterrent and appropriate punishment for some crimes, including mass shootings and the killings of police officers. All five scheduled to be executed starting in December were convicted of killing children.
“I think they should very much bring the death penalty into vogue,” Trump said last year after 11 people were gunned down in a Pittsburgh synagogue.
He’s suggested repeatedly that the U.S. might be better off it adopted the kind of harsh drug laws embraced by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, under whom thousands of drug suspects have been killed by police.
Trump was a vocal proponent of the death penalty for decades before taking office, most notably in 1989 when he took out full-page advertisements in New York City newspapers urging elected officials to “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY” following the rape of a jogger in Central Park. “If the punishment is strong,” he wrote then, “the attacks on innocent people will stop.”
Five Harlem teenagers were convicted in the Central Park case but had their convictions vacated years later after another man confessed to the rape. More than a decade after their exoneration, the city agreed to pay the so-called Central Park Five $41 million, a settlement Trump blasted as “outrageous.”
About 6 in 10 Americans favor the death penalty, according to the General Social Survey, a major trends survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago. While a majority continue to express support for the death penalty, the share has declined steadily since the 1990s, when nearly three-quarters were in favor.
The first inmate scheduled to be executed — on Dec. 9 — is Danny Lee, who was convicted of killing a family of three, including an 8-year-old girl, in 1996, and stealing guns and cash in a plot to establish a whites-only nation in the Pacific Northwest.
The others include Lezmond Mitchell, who prosecutors say stabbed a 63-year-old grandmother to death and then forced her 9-year-old granddaughter to sit beside her grandmother’s lifeless body as he drove about 40 miles, before slitting the girl’s throat. Their beheaded, mutilated bodies were found in a shallow grave on a Native reservation. He’s scheduled to be executed two days after Lee.
The Bureau of Prisons plans to execute Wesley Ira Purkey on Dec. 13. He was convicted of raping and killing a 16-year-old girl before dismembering, burning and then dumping the teen’s body in a septic pond. Prosecutors said he was also convicted in a state court in Kansas after using a claw hammer to kill an 80-year-old woman who suffered from polio.
Prosecutors say another one of the inmates, Alfred Bourgeois, tortured, molested and then beat his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter to death.
The final inmate scheduled to be executed, Dustin Lee Honken, was convicted in 2004 in connection with the killings of five people as part of a plan to thwart a federal investigation into his drug operation. They included two men who became informants and were going to testify against him, the girlfriend of one of the informants and her two young daughters.
All five will be executed at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Attorneys for each of the men did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Thursday.
The federal government would join eight states that have executed inmates or are planning to do so this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Texas is far and away the leading state when it comes to using the death penalty, with 563 executions since capital punishment resumed in the U.S. in 1977 after a 10-year pause.
In the past 20 years, the Supreme Court has banned the execution of people who are intellectually disabled or were under 18 when they killed someone. But even as the number of people who are sentenced to death and are executed has declined steadily for two decades, the justices have resisted any wholesale reconsideration of the constitutionality of capital punishment.
The five-justice conservative majority that includes Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s two high court picks, has complained about delaying tactics employed by lawyers for death row inmates.
The most recent federal execution occurred in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of a female soldier.
Federal Government Press Release On Death Penalty
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Thursday, July 25, 2019
Federal Government to Resume Capital Punishment After Nearly Two Decade Lapse
Attorney General William P. Barr Directs the Federal Bureau of Prisons to Adopt an Addendum to the Federal Execution Protocol and Schedule the Executions of Five Death-Row Inmates Convicted of Murdering Children
Attorney General William P. Barr has directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to adopt a proposed Addendum to the Federal Execution Protocol—clearing the way for the federal government to resume capital punishment after a nearly two decade lapse, and bringing justice to victims of the most horrific crimes. The Attorney General has further directed the Acting Director of the BOP, Hugh Hurwitz, to schedule the executions of five death-row inmates convicted of murdering, and in some cases torturing and raping, the most vulnerable in our society—children and the elderly.
“Congress has expressly authorized the death penalty through legislation adopted by the people’s representatives in both houses of Congress and signed by the President,” Attorney General Barr said. “Under Administrations of both parties, the Department of Justice has sought the death penalty against the worst criminals, including these five murderers, each of whom was convicted by a jury of his peers after a full and fair proceeding. The Justice Department upholds the rule of law—and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”
The Federal Execution Protocol Addendum, which closely mirrors protocols utilized by several states, including currently Georgia, Missouri, and Texas, replaces the three-drug procedure previously used in federal executions with a single drug—pentobarbital. Since 2010, 14 states have used pentobarbital in over 200 executions, and federal courts, including the Supreme Court, have repeatedly upheld the use of pentobarbital in executions as consistent with the Eighth Amendment.
Upon the Attorney General’s direction, Acting Director Hurwitz adopted the Addendum to the Federal Execution Protocol and, in accordance with 28 C.F.R. Part 26, scheduled executions for the following individuals:
Daniel Lewis Lee, a member of a white supremacist group, murdered a family of three, including an eight-year-old girl. After robbing and shooting the victims with a stun gun, Lee covered their heads with plastic bags, sealed the bags with duct tape, weighed down each victim with rocks, and threw the family of three into the Illinois bayou. On May 4, 1999, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas found Lee guilty of numerous offenses, including three counts of murder in aid of racketeering, and he was sentenced to death. Lee’s execution is scheduled to occur on Dec. 9, 2019.
Lezmond Mitchell stabbed to death a 63-year-old grandmother and forced her nine-year-old granddaughter to sit beside her lifeless body for a 30 to 40-mile drive. Mitchell then slit the girl’s throat twice, crushed her head with 20-pound rocks, and severed and buried both victims’ heads and hands. On May 8, 2003, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona found Mitchell guilty of numerous offenses, including first degree murder, felony murder, and carjacking resulting in murder, and he was sentenced to death. Mitchell’s execution is scheduled to occur on Dec. 11, 2019.
Wesley Ira Purkey violently raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl, and then dismembered, burned, and dumped the young girl’s body in a septic pond. He also was convicted in state court for using a claw hammer to bludgeon to death an 80-year-old woman who suffered from polio and walked with a cane. On Nov. 5, 2003, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri found Purkey guilty of kidnapping a child resulting in the child’s death, and he was sentenced to death. Purkey’s execution is scheduled to occur on Dec. 13, 2019.
Alfred Bourgeois physically and emotionally tortured, sexually molested, and then beat to death his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. On March 16, 2004, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas found Bourgeois guilty of multiple offenses, including murder, and he was sentenced to death. Bourgeois’ execution is scheduled to occur on Jan. 13, 2020.
Dustin Lee Honken shot and killed five people—two men who planned to testify against him and a single, working mother and her ten-year-old and six-year-old daughters. On Oct. 14, 2004, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa found Honken guilty of numerous offenses, including five counts of murder during the course of a continuing criminal enterprise, and he was sentenced to death. Honken’s execution is scheduled to occur on Jan. 15, 2020.
Each of these inmates has exhausted their appellate and post-conviction remedies, and currently, no legal impediments prevent their executions, which will take place at U.S. Penitentiary Terre Haute, Indiana. Additional executions will be scheduled at a later date.