Attorney General William Barr is moving the United States backward. He is taking hard-fought civil rights gains to the dumpster. Just like President Donald Trump, he has nothing but racist contempt for people caught up in the so-called criminal justice system.
Barr suddenly announced in a Department of Justice press release on July 25 that the federal government will resume executions. It stated that the DOJ directed the federal Bureau of Prisons to set three execution dates in a five-day span between Dec. 9 and 13, with two others on Jan. 13 and 15. Notably, the last date will mark the 90th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.
The five men to be executed have all been convicted of murdering children. This is a horrific act considered by most people to be among the worst crimes. It is no accident that these prisoners were chosen — in order to elicit public support for their executions.
Since the federal death penalty was reauthorized in 1988, only three people have been executed. There has been an informal moratorium since the last federal execution in 2003. Apparently neither Barr nor Trump have learned anything during the 16-year hiatus.
Support wanes for executions
Barr’s directive comes as public support for capital punishment has ebbed, down from nearly 80 percent in 1996 to less than 50 percent in 2016. Three major factors contribute to the drop in support: Research has debunked the reactionary premise that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime; publication of the fact that 166 innocent people on state death rows have been exonerated and released; and charges of racism have been confirmed in the application of the death penalty.
New Hampshire legislators voted to abolish the death penalty on May 30, making it the 21st state to ban executions. In four other states, governors have imposed moratoriums on executions. The other 25 states still have the death penalty on their books, but the majority rarely use it. The 10 state executions that have occurred so far in 2019 have been carried out in the Southern states of Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, Florida and Alabama.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center: “The federal death penalty is authorized for a variety of crimes that directly implicate federal interests, including terrorism and espionage. However, none of the prisoners who are the subjects of the five warrants were charged with such crimes, and only one of the 62 people on federal death row has been convicted of terrorism. No one on death row has been sentenced to death for a crime involving treason or espionage.” (deathpenaltyinfo.org, July 25)
There are 62 people on federal death row, with over half — 35 — from oppressed communities: 26 are African American, seven are Latinx, one is Asian and one is Native American.
The federal death penalty mirrors use of this policy in the states. No matter where applied, it is a racist, anti-poor weapon, disproportionately used against African-American, Latinx, Asian and Indigenous people. Many prisoners receive inadequate legal representation in biased courts where injustice prevails.
Death penalty: ‘Racist, vile policy’
On July 26, one day after Barr’s edict, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts introduced a bill that would reverse the DOJ’s plans and abolish the death penalty altogether. She is a member of “The Squad” — four progressive congresswomen of color who are directly challenging the Trump administration.
Pressley, who is African American, tweeted the same day: “The same racist rhetoric coming from the occupant of the White House, who called for the execution of the #exonerated5 [Central Park Five], is what led to this racist, vile policy.”
Trump notoriously spent $85,000 on full-page ads in New York newspapers in 1989 calling for the execution of the Central Park Five, the Black and Latinx youth falsely convicted of rape. His ads, which ran soon after the incident, played a key role in shaping public opinion about the case.
The five men were later exonerated by DNA evidence and the real rapist’s confession. Yet Trump has never withdrawn his remarks or apologized. There is the very real possibility that the exonerations would have come too late if New York had implemented the death penalty at that time.
Andrea Lyon, a Chicago defense attorney who specializes in capital cases, commented to The Atlantic magazine on July 29: “Since Trump took office, those of us in the capital-defense community have seen a sharp spike in capital prosecutions of state crimes by the federal government, and there is a shortage of counsel qualified to represent defendants in death-penalty cases. States that are perfectly capable of prosecuting cases are having jurisdiction taken from them by the federal government.”
Stop legal lynching!
Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., stated: “The death penalty in America is a failed, expensive policy defined by bias and error. It is a direct descendant of lynching. More than eight in ten American lynchings between 1889 and 1918 occurred in the South, and more than eight in ten of the 1500 executions carried out in this country since 1976 have been in the South.” (eji.org)
Stevenson and his staff have won reversals, relief or release from prison for over 135 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row and won relief for hundreds of others wrongly convicted or unfairly sentenced.
The Trump administration’s decision to return to federal executions is partly to bolster his reelection bid among racist supporters who love his “Make America White Again” programs — and to intensify state repression against the working class and oppressed.
Activists in Texas, which has executed 561 people since 1982, have strongly protested the reinstatement of the federal death penalty.
Delia Perez Meyer’s brother, Louis Castro Perez, is on Texas’ death row despite evidence of innocence. She told Workers World on Aug. 3: “When I heard that federal executions were being resumed, I was really appalled. The U.S. is taking gigantic steps backward. The many states now moving toward abolition could now have second thoughts.”
That has already happened in Arizona where state Attorney General Mark Brnovich wrote a public letter to Gov. Doug Ducey asking that their state follow Washington’s lead and resume executions.
In 2014, Joseph Wood was the last person executed in Arizona. He was injected 15 times with death-causing drugs before he finally died after two hours of agony. “After about nine minutes, his mouth opened wide, his head moved up against the restraints, he bucked up against the straps and he started gulping and gasping,” said his attorney Dale Baich. (KVOA.com, Aug. 2)
No humane executions
Activist Lily Hughes is a leader of the campaign to stop the November execution of Rodney Reed, an African-American man whose only crime was having a relationship with a white woman. Hughes told WW: “My problem with the one-drug lethal injection is that all lethal injections have been proven to be the least humane method for execution so far. There is no humane way to execute people. The idea that lethal injection is a humane clinical procedure is a lie.”
Hughes continued: “There have been more botched executions using lethal injection than any other execution method. They do not even know where the pentobarbital is going to come from. Is it going to be FDA [Food and Drug Administration] approved? People laying on a gurney being executed say, ‘I feel my whole body burning.’ This rush to execute has nothing to do with following the law. Ultimately people will be tortured with an untested drug.”
Joanne Gavin, a founding member of the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement, stressed that this latest move by Trump and the DOJ is “just one more attack on working-class people and an intensification of state repression and racist oppression. But our job is to stop these new executions before they even begin.”