On capital punishment

20 January 2021

On 16 October 2019 Rick Scott claimed, in his maiden speech in the US Senate, that “America is the greatest country in the history of the world”. That is not true if only for this reason – 13 death-row prisoners have been killed by the federal government since July 2019. Since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988, there have been only three executions and there have been none since 2003. One would have to go back to 1896 to find 10 or more federal executions. If the trend has been against capital punishment and more than 60% of respondents in a 2019 Gallup poll favoured life imprisonment over the death penalty, why the recent rush of executions?

The simple answer is Donald Trump. Throughout the four years of his presidency, he has been ridiculed for his hairstyle, his personal vanity and thin skin, his semi-literate tweets, his nonsensical off-the-cuff remarks … the list is endless. But all this makes him seem a buffoon rather than the vicious, unprincipled sociopath that he is. To sanction the execution of so many, particularly during the so-called lame-duck period before the inauguration of another president, is unnecessary and unequivocally cruel.

Some historians draw a direct line from the abolition of slavery to the death penalty. Capital punishment is concentrated in the south of the US, where the abolition of slavery was succeeded by the convict-leasing system and lynching. “The death penalty is a direct descendant of lynching and other forms of racial violence in America” (Stephen Bright, US Supreme Court advocate). Many studies have shown that racial prejudice remains embedded in the administration of the death penalty. An overwhelming proportion of death-row and executed prisoners are black.

Amnesty International’s Declaration of Stockholm declared that the death penalty is “the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment and violates the right to life”. Trump, who has pandered to the pro-life evangelical voting bloc since he announced he was running for the presidency, is clearly not troubled by the ethical contradiction of being pro-life and implementing capital punishment.

Little troubled by ethical matters, Trump and his complicit (and practising Roman Catholic) Attorney-General say they are simply following the letter of the law and they owe it to the victims of the crimes committed by the death-row inmates. It is not coincidental that federal executions resumed during Trump’s campaign for re-election – calling himself the “law and order” candidate and being seen to be “tough on crime” resonates with a proportion of American voters.

Being in a position to approve executions is the ultimate expression of power. For someone like Trump, who revelled in the trappings of the office and shirked the responsibilities and duties, this was likely uppermost in his mind.

Of the last four people executed, three had intellectual disabilities and/or serious mental illness and two had suffered horrific physical and emotional abuse as children (one wonders about the indifference of a state that neglected to protect them as children yet finds it appropriate to kill them when they become damaged adults). In addition, two contracted Covid-19 while in prison and suffered severe respiratory difficulties prior to their executions.

Today a new president, who does not support the death penalty, is being sworn into office. There has been a collective sigh of relief around the world – but it comes too late for these 13 people.