In a July 25, 2019 press release, the U.S. Justice Department (“DOJ”) announced that Attorney General William P. Barr has directed the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to adopt a Proposed Addendum Federal Execution Protocol—a protocol that mirrors the protocols followed in Texas, Missouri, and Georgia in carrying out their executions. This protocol utilizes a single powerful dose of pentobarbital to kill the condemned inmate—a protocol, according to the DOJ, that has been utilized in 14 states in more than 200 executions.
It is the same protocol used by most veterinary clinics to euthanize animals.
Five Men Scheduled to be Executed
The Acting Director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, Hugh Hurwitz, promptly began preparing for the executions of the five selected five inmates—three in December and two in January 2020. Hurwitz was assured by AG Barr that more executions would be forthcoming as soon as the BOP director dispenses with these five inmates.
The Death Penalty Information Center (“DPIC”) reports there are 62 inmates on the federal death row located at the Terre Haute, Indiana penal facility—27 Caucasians, 26 African Americans, 7 Latinos, 1 Asian, and 1 Native American.
Each of the five inmates targeted for execution by AG Barr—Daniel Lee Lewis, Lezmond Mitchell, Wesley Ira Purkey, Alfred Burgeois, and Dustin Lee Honken—were convicted and sentenced to death under the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994. These men were convicted of heinous crimes that make scream out for revenge, retaliation and the ultimate punishment. But bad facts often lead to bad law and bad policy.
In the wake of a 1976 Supreme Court ruling that effectively allowed the states to reinstate death following a four-year post-Furman moratorium, the federal government did not formally reinstate the death penalty until 1988.
Since that time, according to DPIC, the federal government has executed three inmates—the last in 2003. The most infamous of the three was Timothy McVeigh who killed at least 168 people, including eight law enforcement officers, in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City—ironically, McVeigh was one of the godfathers of the white nationalist movement to which President Trump frequently gives legitimacy.
Callous Political Move Reminiscent of Central Park Five
AG Barr’s sudden reinstatement of the federal death penalty is nothing more than a callous, subservient response to President Trump’s need to make the death penalty a political issue in the upcoming 2020 presidential election. Trump has a long history of using the death penalty for personal and political gain. To this date Trump refuses to apologize for the full-page he took out in 1989 in the New York Daily News demanding the death penalty for the five African American teens wrongfully convicted in the 1989 attack on a jogger in New York’s Central Park.
Despite DNA evidence clearing the five men in 2014 and the City of New York agreeing to a $41 million settlement with the men, Trump still pushes the discredited notion that the men are guilty and should have been put to death.
In the DOJ press release, AG Barr informed the nation that he selected these five inmates because they were “convicted of murdering, and in some cases torturing and raping, the most vulnerable in our society—children and the elderly.”
But like most information that comes from the Trump administration, AG Barr’s death selection process is a dripping in political irony.
Just last year the DOJ allowed a serial killer and a mass murderer—Darren Vann who killed seven women and Esteban Santiago who killed five people and wounded six others in a shooting rampage—to avoid the death penalty in exchange for guilty pleas. This is a settlement that we would suggest in all cases with death penalty exposure, one that confines a dangerous offender for life, yet removes the state from the business of homicide.
20Playing Politics with Death Penalty Creates Another Wedge Issue
We suspect that a similar death penalty decision by the Trump DOJ is in the works.
In October 2018, white nationalist Robert Bowers walked into the Jewish Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and slaughtered eleven people. The DOJ sought and secured a 63-count indictment of Bowers, 22 of which carry the death penalty. Some nine months after this horrific mass murder, the DOJ has not made a decision about whether it will seek the death penalty against Bowers. The wife of one of the surviving shooting victims has already called upon the DOJ to spare Bowers from the death penalty.
AG Barr will make a cost/benefit political analysis before he decides whether to seek the death penalty against Bowers. If the political winds favor either a death or non-death penalty prosecution, that is precisely what Barr will give them—after consulting with the president, of course.
The Trump administration is “playing politics” with the death penalty. While support for the death penalty has significantly decreased in this country over the past decade, 77 percent of Republicans still favor the penalty while only 35 percent of Democrats support it. That is all the president needs—another issue to divide the nation along partisan and racial lines.