Cruel and unusual: Trump’s death penalty rampage demeans us all

Lisa Montgomery

Previously published at GBH News.

Donald Trump’s presidency has been defined by shocking cruelty. Sometimes it’s been deliberate, as with his practice of taking children from the families of undocumented immigrants. Sometimes it’s the result of wanton neglect and cynical blame-shifting, as with his deadly handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There’s been such a never-ending torrent or horrors for the past four years that some of his misdeeds are in danger of being overlooked. One that we should be focused on, though, is the spree of federal executions he’s ordered during his final months in office.

Starting last July, 13 people were executed — six of them since the election, when Trump was defeated by Joe Biden, who has said he will not use the death penalty once he becomes president. By contrast, there had been only three federal executions since the presidency of John F. Kennedy, all presided over by George W. Bush.

Trump was in such a rush to kill that the final execution, of Dustin John Higgs, was carried out just a few days before Biden’s inauguration. And in a textbook illustration of how inequitably the ultimate punishment is used, Higgs was put to death for killing three women even though it was an associate, Willis Haynes, who shot them to death. Haynes received a 45-year sentence.

Capital punishment is a relic of the past — a barbaric measure not worthy of a decent society. Western Europe, Canada, Australia, South Africa and all of South America have either abolished it or no longer use it. Our peers are repressive regimes such as China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and a handful of others (including, oddly enough, Japan).

And despite our ignominious status as a country that still executes people, capital punishment has been waning even in the United States, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

“At the end of the year,” the center said in a recent report, “more states had abolished the death penalty or gone ten years without an execution, more counties had elected reform prosecutors who pledged never to seek the death penalty or to use it more sparingly; fewer new death sentences were imposed than in any prior year since the Supreme Court struck down U.S. death penalty laws in 1972; and despite a six-month spree of federal executions without parallel in the 20th or 21st centuries, fewer executions were carried out than in any year in nearly three decades.”

Trump, lest you forget, called for New York to reinstate the death penalty following the conviction of five young men in a violent assault against a female jogger in Central Park a generation ago; they were later exonerated. Not much has changed. Trump’s current spate of executions, according to ProPublica, has been marked by stunning breaches of protocol and procedure.

“Officials gave public explanations for their choice of which prisoners should die that misstated key facts from the cases,” ProPublica reported. “They moved ahead with executions in the middle of the night. They left one prisoner strapped to the gurney while lawyers worked to remove a court order. They executed a second prisoner while an appeal was still pending, leaving the court to then dismiss the appeal as ‘moot’ because the man was already dead. They bought drugs from a secret pharmacy that failed a quality test. They hired private executioners and paid them in cash.”

Those who are sentenced to die for their crimes have generally done terrible things. They tend not to inspire much sympathy even from those who oppose capital punishment in the abstract. Yet, occasionally, innocent people are put to death. And even those who are guilty often have complicated backstories.

The New York Times opinion section recently wrote about two especially harrowing cases. One was that of Lisa Montgomery, who was executed on Jan. 13, becoming the first woman to die at the hands of the federal government in 70 years. In 2004, Montgomery cut a baby out of the belly of a pregnant woman who was left to die. It was a horrific murder, the sort of act for which the death penalty would seem to be designed. (Incredibly, the baby lived.)

Yet Rachel Louise Snyder of American University, writing in The Times, painted a picture of Montgomery that was itself so horrendous that it’s hard to accept that justice required her execution. Repeatedly abused sexually by her father and his friends, brain-damaged by repeated blows to the head, Montgomery was a profoundly damaged woman who should have been allowed to live out her life in the custody of federal authorities.

The other case was more typical. Alfred Bourgeois was a Black man, as are a disproportionate share of those who are put to death. He was the subject of a long profile by The Times’ Elizabeth Bruenig, who witnessed his execution on Dec. 11. Bourgeois, too, had done something unimaginably awful — he slammed his 2-year-old daughter’s head repeatedly into the cab of his truck in 2002, killing her.

Yet, according to Bruenig, the reason Bourgeois was sentenced to death rather than life in prison was that he was also accused of having sexually abused his daughter. “Mr. Bourgeois’s lawyers — and there were many over time — were ultimately unable to overcome the lurid accusation,” Bruenig wrote. “Media reports inevitably focused on the appalling notion of a father raping his own toddler.” But according to Bruenig, there was good reason to believe that it never happened.

The Trump nightmare is nearly over. But it didn’t end soon enough for Lisa Montgomery, Dustin John Higgs, Alfred Bourgeois and the 10 other victims of Trump’s bloodlust. Few will mourn them. Yet their deaths in our name are an indelible stain on all of us. Let’s hope the Biden presidency represents real progress toward decency and justice — and not merely a four-year interregnum before we embrace our darker natures once again.

One thought on “Cruel and unusual: Trump’s death penalty rampage demeans us all

  1. Steve Ross

    One important point that gets overlooked: It historically costs authorities far less to lock up a prisoner for life than to pay the up-front legal costs for all the wrangling leading to execution. Haven’t hunted for a recent study, and recent very low interest and inflation rates have reduced the gap between present and future value of money. But legal wrangling has intensified, in part because there have been so many exonerations.

    Yet public blood lust is still high. Prosecutors and governors still get elected by riding it.

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