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.

More details on the Globe’s tweaked-up opinion section

The Boston Globe’s interim editorial-page editor, Ellen Clegg, wasn’t ready to go public about this when we spoke last week. But this week the paper announced a project called “Opinion Reel,” which will run “short documentaries with a point of view” submitted by “local professionals, students, and smartphone auteurs.”

“You could even be Ken Burns and we’ll take a look,” Clegg says.

It’s an intriguing idea, and it will be interesting to see what gets posted. I’ve already made sure our journalism students at Northeastern know about it.

• As I wrote last week, the redesign of the opinion pages in print can’t be looked at in isolation. Instead, the two-page print spread should be seen as kind of a “best of” taken from the larger online opinion section. I’ve heard several people say they were afraid the pages were being dumbed down, a concern that makes sense only if you’re still focused on print. (People: It’s 2015.)

Case in point: On Wednesday, as the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev death-penalty case was being turned over to the jury, the Globe posted a commentary by Boston College Law School professor Kari Hong arguing that the time has come to bring back firing squads. Her piece does not appear in the print edition.

As Mark Twain said of Wagner’s music, Hong’s essay is better than it sounds. Hong, an opponent of capital punishment who’s represented clients on death row, makes a strong case that the firing squad would be more humane than lethal injection.

“If jurors had to choose between giving someone life in prison — without the possibility of parole — or putting them in front of a firing squad,” she concludes, “I have no doubt that many would opt for the former.”

The Times goes easy on Bush’s support for the death penalty

Jeb Bush
Jeb Bush

Michael Paulson underplays Jeb Bush’s enthusiasm for the death penalty in a front-page New York Times story on Bush’s Catholicism. Paulson dwells on Bush’s opposition to abortion rights and to the comfort his adopted faith has brought him. For instance:

“It gives me a serenity, and allows me to think clearer,” Mr. Bush said as he exited the tile-roof church here on a recent Sunday, exchanging greetings and, with the ease of a longtime politician, acquiescing to the occasional photo. “It’s made me a better person.”

Paulson’s sole excursion into capital punishment comes in the sixth paragraph, and it is hedged with a “but”:

He differed from his church, significantly and openly, over capital punishment; the state executed 21 prisoners on his watch, the most under any Florida governor since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. But he has won praise from Catholic officials for his welcoming tone toward immigrants and his relatively centrist positions on education — two issues in which he is at odds with the right wing of his party.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out as the presidential campaign gears up. For years, leaders of the Catholic Church have excoriated pro-choice politicians while going easy on those who are pro-life but who also favor the death penalty. (Yes, I realize how strange that sounds.) Pope Francis is surely as pro-life as his predecessors. But he may also prove to be more expansive in his definition of what it means to be pro-life, which could create problems for Bush. For instance, last fall Francis called for the abolition of capital punishment and of life imprisonment as well, according to the Catholic News Service.

As for Paulson, an excellent religion reporter who is also a Boston Globe alumnus, I wish he had found space for more than 33 words in a 2,200-word article to explain exactly how far from the Catholic Church’s teachings Bush has deviated.

Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved. Some rights reserved.

Violence begets violence

The death penalty may have cost three innocent people their lives. From The New York Times’ story on Frazier Glenn Miller, the anti-Semite who killed three people in Missouri:

In recent years, Mr. Miller has also been a devoted pen pal to incarcerated white supremacists, among them Joseph Paul Franklin, a convicted murderer who was executed in Missouri in November. Ms. Beirich, of the law center, said that Mr. Miller was very close to Mr. Franklin, whose birthday was Sunday, the day of the shooting.

More: Lest I be misunderstood, Miller is of course 100 percent responsible for his actions. He, not the death penalty, killed three innocent people. But this hatemonger had somehow made it to the age of 73 without killing anyone. Then the state of Missouri took the life of his friend. Who knows what effect that may have had on his twisted mind?

It is beyond dispute that states with the death penalty also have the highest murder rate. And some research suggests that’s no accident, as the potentially homicidal are more likely to identify with the executioner than the condemned.

Update: Kenneth Foster is spared

Kenneth Foster, whose death-penalty case I wrote about for The Guardian last week, has been spared by Texas Gov. Rick Perry. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports.

Alberto Gonzales, angel of death

My latest for The Guardian is up. It’s on the new death-penalty powers that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is about to receive, and why his record in Texas shows that he’s particularly unsuited to wield such powers.

Saddam’s last minutes?

It looks like Saddam Hussein will hang not long after this item is posted. Though I’m personally opposed to the death penalty, such opposition strikes me as ridiculous in the Iraqi context. Still, I’m of a mixed mind.

On the one hand, it seems a shame to execute him while he’s still on trial for far greater crimes than those of which he’s been convicted. Accountability is important, and this short-circuits that process.

On the other, from my safe perch at Media Nation Central it seems as though some segment of the Iraqi population is still afraid that Saddam will return to power — and that the Sunni insurgency is actually hoping he’ll come back. In the end, that might be even more important than formal accountability. (I say “formal” because it’s not as though we don’t know what he’s done.)

Thus, now is probably as good a time as any.

Photo by Alessandro Abate and used under the terms of Creative Commons (cc). Some rights reserved.