Before President Donald Trump leaves office at noon on Jan. 20, his Department of Justice is scheduled to execute five federal prisoners — including four Black men and a severely mentally ill white woman.
The move is drawing the ire of human rights activists because it is unprecedented for a lame-duck administration to execute one prisoner, let alone five — specifically with the underlying problems in several of the cases.
“It just shows when you give absolute power over life and death to government officials, they can really do what they want,” anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean told Democracy Now during an interview published Nov. 30.
Brandon Bernard, 40, is scheduled to be executed on Dec. 10, which is also International Human Rights Day. Alfred Bourgeois is scheduled to be executed the following day, Dec. 11.
Lisa Montgomery is scheduled to be executed Jan. 12; Cory Johnson is scheduled to be executed on Jan. 14; and on Jan. 15 — also the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — Dustin Diggs is scheduled to be executed.
Bernard — who’s serving time for being an accomplice in the 1999 murder of a young white couple when he was 18 — was not adequately represented by his attorneys, his defenders claim. The lawyers didn’t make opening statements, no witnesses were called at the penalty stage, and all of the jurors except one were white.
Bernard is one of the youngest federal prisoners on death row scheduled to be executed. He’s admitted his involvement in the crime, but maintains he thought the gang he was in was going to rob the couple, not kill them. Many who are advocating for his life say Bernard’s case is different because he was low on the totem pole and showed remorse, unlike the gang’s ringleader who initiated the murders and was executed in September. Even some of the jurors have come forth asking for mercy in Bernard’s case.
Montgomery was convicted of strangling a 23-year-old pregnant woman named Bobbie Jo Stinnett in 2004, cutting the fetus from the victim’s belly and trying to pass off the baby as her own.
Montgomery, who was convicted in 2007, has been deemed severely mentally ill as a result of years of abuse including gang rape, child sex-trafficking, violence and forced sterilization, according to Cornell law professor and faculty director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide Sandra Babcock.
“Lisa was left, from these experiences, as somebody who has the most fragile grip on reality, because she had to escape from her reality in order to survive. … She is profoundly mentally ill,” Babcock told Democracy Now. “Why the rush to execute someone like Lisa Montgomery, among all of these other people? That, to me, illustrates the brutality that we are witnessing right now.”
Montgomery would be the first woman the federal government has put to death since 1953.
Cory Johnson has an IQ of 69, which is below the standard of the Supreme Court used when determining whether execution is cruel and unusual punishment.
The aforementioned are just the latest in a string of federal prisoners to be executed in 2020 by the Trump DOJ, which reinstated federal executions in July, more than 17 years after they had been suspended.
In the five months since then, eight other federal prisoners have been executed. If Bernard’s and Bourgeois’ executions stand, that would bring this year’s federal executions to 10, the most in a single year in the past two centuries.
“The Trump administration’s policy regarding a death penalty is just historically abhorrent,” Robert Dunham, executive director of Death Penalty Information Center, told Vox. “No one has conducted this number of federal civilian executions in this short period of time in American history.”
In addition to the unprecedented number of executions scheduled, the DOJ has also amended the manner of federal executions to include executions by firing squad, electrocution or poison gas. The changes are due to go into effect on Christmas Eve.
Prejean said she believes it is the DOJ’s way of avoiding any delays to executions by legal challenges.
“I think the reason they’re doing that is they want to make sure that they can expedite these executions without any court cases about lethal injection. There have been questions about lethal injection, the drugs that are used,” Prejean said.
Dunham believes the Trump administration’s actions underscore just how cruel it is.
“The fact that we’re having a record-high number of federal executions, at the same time that we’re near a record low in state executions, in the middle of a pandemic, shows how much the Trump administration is either out of touch or that it cannot resist gratuitous acts of cruelty,” Dunham said.