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United States: resumption of federal executions after a 16-year moratorium


US Attorney General William Barr said in an official statement on 26 July 2019 that federal executions have resumed in the United States. A lethal procedure has already been chosen and five convicted persons are expected to be executed between December and January.

On Thursday, July 26, 2019, William Barr, Attorney General of the United States, i. e. Minister of Justice, thrilled all human rights organizations around the world by putting executions at the federal level back on the agenda. A 16 year leap backwards since these had been suspended since 2003, following controversies over lethal injections.

In doing so, Government Minister Trump is responding to the President’s desire to increase the death penalty for certain crimes, particularly those related to terrorism and drug trafficking. Five executions are already planned from 9 December 2019… just in time for the launch of the Trump 2020 campaign.

What are the differences between federal and state executions?

Of the 50 American states, 25 still apply the death penalty, 21 have abolished it and 4 have a moratorium. Each State is responsible for convicting its citizens for crimes committed on its territory. Federal executions concern the most serious crimes such as first-rate murders (racist crimes or crimes against police or military for example), espionage or attacks. The federal death penalty therefore applies throughout the United States.

In 1976, federal executions were banned by a Supreme Court moratorium. Ronald Reagan reinstated them again in 1988 but few people have been executed: “only” 4 since 1960. In particular, Timothy McVeigh is responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people in 1995. It was carried out in 2001.

Currently, 62 people are on death row in federal penitentiaries, compared to more than 2,600 in state prisons, according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). Among them, one of the two perpetrators of the Boston marathon attack, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and the white supremacist Dylann Roof, convicted of the Charleston, South Carolina church massacre in 2015.

Why were federal executions banned?

The reason for successive moratoria on federal executions comes from controversies over lethal injection methods. Indeed, the products tested were not always effective and were sometimes considered inhuman because of the suffering they inflict on the condemned and the sometimes too long time between the injection of the product and the death of the condemned. In order to remedy this problem, Texas, which is the most executed state in the United States, has been using sodium pentobarbital since 2012. This method is more effective than the cocktail of the 3 products previously injected to convicts. The latter was also considered to be in breach of the 8th amendment which prohibits cruel punishment.

It is this new product that will now be used for future federal executions.

Why restore them?

In his statement, William Barr justified the return of federal executions as follows: “We must, for the victims and their families, apply the sentences declared by our judicial system”. In truth, it responds above all to the desire of its president to tighten his policy towards criminals in order to please his electorate for the presidential elections in 2020.

Donald Trump has never hid from his support for the death penalty. In 1989, he bought a page of advertising in the New York Times to demand the death penalty for the “Central Park Five”. These five African-American youths were accused of raping a jogger but have since been exonerated. In 2018, he again called for the return of the federal death penalty after the massacre in a Pittsburgh synagogue.

By reinstating this death penalty a few months before the presidential elections, is Trump trying to flatter his Conservative electorate? In any case, it places particular emphasis on increasing executions for terrorists, police killers and drug traffickers.

Who are the five convicts?

In order to give a “positive” image to these executions, the 5 people chosen for the occasion are sentenced “for having killed, and sometimes tortured and raped, the most vulnerable members of society: children or the elderly”. “Each of these convicts has exhausted their remedies, and there are currently no obstacles to their execution, which will take place at the Federal Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. Further executions are planned for later dates,” says William Barr.

The first execution will be that of Daniel Lee, a white supremacist convicted in 1999 for the murder of an 8-year-old girl and her parents. It is expected to take place on 9 December. Then come the other 4: Lezmond Mitchell, scheduled for execution on December 11, convicted of stabbing a 60-year-old woman and her granddaughter. Wesley Ira Purkey, convicted in 2003 of the rape and sordid murder of a 16-year-old girl. Alfred Bourgeois, who tortured and raped his 2-year-old daughter before beating her to death. Finally, Dustin Lee Honken, who killed five people.

Portraits that make people shudder and that is the objective. This reinforces Donald Trump’s position in the eyes of the public by making the painting rather Manichean.

What does public opinion think?

According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 54% of Americans were in favour of the death penalty in 2018, compared to about 80 in the early 1990s. A decreasing trend, therefore, but still the majority, which is why Donald Trump is openly positioning itself in this way. According to the same survey, the majority of those in favour of the death penalty come from the male, white and poorly educated electorate, who are fond of Trump. Especially since 77% of Republicans would consider the death penalty justified in the event of murder, compared to 35% among Democrats.

Abolitionist candidates in the 2020 elections soon began to rise up on social networks:

“We need a national moratorium on the death penalty, not a resurrection,” tweeted Senator and former prosecutor Kamala Harris, calling the death penalty “immoral.

“There is enough violence in the world, the government should not add more,” Senator Bernie Sanders added.

The administration “is again on the wrong side of history”, also judged the powerful civil rights association ACLU, stressing that capital punishment is characterised by significant racial and geographical disparities.