President Joe Biden Is Now In Office, And He Must Prioritise Abolishing The Death Penalty
Very few issues in society spark as much visceral emotion as the death penalty, a sensitive and often painful subject that affects people across party lines and political allegiances.
This issue forces you to imagine the clinical, judicial act of taking the life of another living person, a human being who knows full well what is about to happen to them.
It also forces you to think about the acts that could ever warrant such a grave decision, the depths of dark depravity to which a person could sink before lifelong imprisonment would be deemed too light of a punishment. This is a decision no human being should be tasked with.
Although capital punishment has seen a downward trend on a global scale – with more than 70% of countries having abolished the death penalty either in law or practice – the US remains an outlier among democracies because it still hands down this punishment.
The messier, more uncomfortable realities of the death penalty were recently brought to stark attention in the lead up to the execution of Lisa Montgomery, a Kansas woman with severe mental health problems and brain damage who had endured a childhood marked by horrifying trauma and sexual abuse.
Montgomery had indeed committed a terrible and unforgivable crime, murdering expectant mother Bobbie Jo Stinnett in 2004 to steal the unborn child from her womb. Such an act could only result in a serious punishment.
However, as her sister Diane Mattingly wrote in a heartbreaking essay for Elle in November, the death penalty was not the answer:
I will always love her, but what she did was the most awful thing a person can do. Lisa should spend the rest of her life in prison, no doubt, but she shouldn’t have to die.
Because maybe if she hadn’t been failed by the people she needed most in society, she could have been part of it.
In Montgomery’s final days, protesters gathered outside the gates of the Terre Haute prison complex in Indiana, campaigning for a more humane punishment.
This is, of course, far from the only case that has forced people to confront the ethics of the death penalty, and Montgomery is by no means the only mentally ill person to have faced execution.
As per the Death Penalty Information Center, there is no categorical ban on executing people with mental illness in US. Although legislatures in various states have considered bills creating this exclusion, none have been enacted.
This is despite the US Supreme Court having ruled that a defendant’s mental illness makes them less morally culpable, meaning this must be considered as an important reason to spare them this most extreme of punishments.
Montgomery died by lethal injection on January 13, just one week before President Joe Biden’s inauguration. This came at a time when so many Americans were considering changes they wanted to see after the division and controversy of the Trump administration.
A long-time supporter of the death penalty, in 1989 the former POTUS famously took out full-page newspaper ads calling for the death penalty to be brought against the Central Park Five, five New York teenagers who were wrongfully convicted for a violent assault on a female jogger.
The case of the Central Park Five, told movingly in Ava DuVernay’s drama miniseries When They See Us, brought the issue of systemic racism in the criminal justice system to greater public attention. To this day, this bias remains damningly evident in death penalty statistics.
Kristina Roth, senior advocate of Amnesty International USA’s Criminal Justice Program, told UNILAD:
It’s important to recognise the legal system makes all kinds of errors before arriving at a death sentence, from inadequate assistance of counsel at the trial phase when important information should be presented to the jury about the background of the accused, to the racial bias in jury selection, to the nearly-impossible barrier of introducing new evidence during post-conviction.
The race of the victim is still an important predictor of who will be sentenced to death and executed. Even though 50% of homicide victims are Black, more than 75% of the murder victims in cases resulting in an execution were white.
We would like to believe that our system has safeguards in place in administering the most extreme final punishment, and that everyone has a fair chance but that just is not the case.
Trump has never apologised or shown remorse for calling for the teenagers’ deaths, remarking in 2019 that ‘you have people on both sides of that’, as per The New York Times.
Given his history, it was perhaps unsurprising when Trump took a hardline approach to the death penalty during his time in office, overseeing more federal executions than any other US president in more than a century; all part and parcel of Trump’s branding as a ‘law and order president’.
This is despite there being no reliable evidence to suggest capital punishment is an effective deterrent against violent crime. Indeed, murder rates in Australia and Canada actually fell after the death penalty was removed in these countries, as per the University of Oxford’s Centre for Criminology.
Roth told UNILAD:
President Trump perpetuated a dangerous falsehood about the death penalty as a cornerstone of law and order, neglecting to see the many fallacies of the punishment.
He maintained that the federal executions were about bringing justice to victims created by these murders, but ignored the pleas of a victim’s family member including Earlene Peterson, an avowed Trump supporter, whose daughter and granddaughter were killed.
She urged President Trump not to carry out the very first of the federal executions of the man convicted of killing her family.
Federal death penalties are used to hand down capital punishment in US states without the death penalty, while state death penalties are used within death penalty states, such as Alabama, Arizona and Arkansas.
Over the years, more and more states have moved to abolish the death penalty, in keeping with changing attitudes, while many of those with this punishment still in place haven’t seen fit to use it for many years.
For example, the most recent state execution in California was carried out back in 2006, while Oregon hasn’t executed anyone since 1997. Before getting rid of the death penalty in 2019, New Hampshire hadn’t seen an execution since 1939.
Since the reinstation of the federal death penalty by the US Supreme Court in 1988, executions conducted by the national or federal government have been rare. As per BBC News, just three federal executions took place from this year up until Trump entered the White House, all of which were carried out before 2003.
Despite this sharp downward trend, Trump signed off on a shocking 13 executions of death row inmates between July 2020 and the furious final days of his presidency.
Six of these came after he’d already been voted out of office following the US election, making him the first ‘lame duck’ president to carry out executions in more than 100 years.
Five people were executed in the weeks prior to Joe Biden’s inauguration, in what was described by The Washington Post as an ‘expensive death penalty binge’.
Speaking with UNILAD, Sarah Craft, death penalty program director at Equal Justice USA, described Trump’s approach to capital punishment as ‘an aberration amidst the national trend away from the death penalty’:
During a global pandemic, the Trump administration sparked outbreaks among people in prison, prison staff, and exeuction witnesses.
It compounded the trauma of victims’ family members, law enforcement, families of those executed, lawyers, reporters, spiritual advisors, and countless others.
As per Roth, the movement to abolish capital punishment grew in the wake of Trump’s execution spree, with ‘thousands of people’ taking action.
On the other side of the coin, Biden is the first US President to campaign against the death penalty, sparking hope that his new administration will work towards a more humane criminal justice system.
Despite having shown support for the death penalty during his 30 years in the senate – even expanding upon the list of crimes punishable by capital punishment back in 1994 – Biden has notably softened his stance in recent years, aligning himself with the contemporary views of younger Democrats.
In 2019, Biden publicly shared his wishes for the elimination of the death penalty, tweeting a set of grim statistics regarding the 160 people who have been exonerated after being sentenced to death since 1973.
During his presidential campaign, Biden pledged he would propose legislation to abolish the federal death penalty, and that he would further provide incentives for states to follow this example.
Biden’s opposition to capital punishment was reiterated during his first days in office, when his press secretary, Jen Psaki, confirmed the president’s beliefs during a press conference, stating that she didn’t have ‘anything to preview for you in terms of what steps he may take’.
Sharing the hopes of so many campaigners up and down the country, Craft is ‘thrilled’ to finally have a president in the White House who opposes the death penalty.
Craft remarked that even 10 years ago, this sort of announcement would have been ‘huge news’:
But today, with the steep decline of the death penalty throughout the country, it is barely a footnote on the day’s briefing.
The president has several powers he can exercise alone to continue the death penalty’s decline. Other things he will need the help of Congress to achieve, and ultimately the end of the death penalty will only come when all 50 states end it.
With Democratic lawmakers now urging Biden to commute the sentences of all 49 federal death row prisoners, anti-death penalty campaigners are now awaiting his next move.
Going forward, Congress will need to pass legislation which will then be signed into law. Representatives Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts), Adriana Espaillat (New York) and Senator Dick Durbin (Illinois) currently all lead bills intended to put a stop to the federal death penalty.
According to Roth, these bills don’t default to life imprisonment without parole, allowing for those serving federal death sentence to be resentenced once the legislation has been enacted, in what she regards as a ‘real show of progress’.
Roth told UNILAD:
President Biden has the ability to issue a moratorium on federal executions and the ability to commute any and all federal death sentences, and he should do both of these things.
The US Department of Justice can and should deauthorize any pending death penalty trial cases, establish clear executive guidelines that prohibit federal prosecutors from seeking the death penalty; rescind the lethal injection protocol, manner of executions regulation and internal DOJ guidelines on litigating death row cases that both took effect in December of 2020.
The Bureau of Prisons should dismantle the death chamber at FCC Terre Haute.
It’s clear that Biden’s ethos chimes with contemporary public opinion, with a poll by the Death Penalty Information Center finding that death penalty support is nearing historic lows after a 1994 peak, with declining support noted over a 25-year period.
As per the 2020 Gallup death penalty poll, 60% of Americans choosing whether or not the death penalty or life without possibility of parole ‘is the better penalty for murder’ opted for the life-sentencing option, while 36% were in favour of the death penalty.
The exact same question asked in the 1985 Gallup poll saw 56% favour the death penalty, and 34% choose life imprisonment. It’s clear that Biden is far from the only American to have reached a more informed understanding on this issue.
Craft told UNILAD:
The resources that states waste on the death penalty could be put towards programs that actually keep communities safe, prevent violence before it occurs, and provide healing resources for victims’ families.
The current criminal justice system in the United States is a constant cycle of trauma and harm for those that find themselves in it, and EJUSA is reimagining a justice system that can turn away from punishment, deliver equity and well-being, and lean into healing-centered means of recovery, community safety, and accountability that restores.
UNILAD spoke with Rev. Jack Sullivan Jr., a Christian minister from Ohio, who is part of several anti-death penalty organisations, including Journey of Hope – From Violence to Healing.
Having always been against the death penalty on account of his Christian faith, Sullivan instead follows Jesus’s example of ‘human redemption, human transformation and grace and mercy’. He was able to maintain this strong belief after suffering a devastating personal loss.
In their hometown of Cleveland 24 years ago, Sullivan’s younger sister was murdered by a killer who has never been found. Her then two-year-old daughter had been present in the house at the time.
Sullivan explained that he and his family ‘remain committed to ending the cycle of death that consumed my sister’, remarking how ‘that cycle of death includes executions’.
Through Journey of Hope, Sullivan, alongside others who have lost loved ones to murder, shares his story as a way of calling for a more effective, constructive response to violent crime.
The organisation was co-founded by the late Bill Pelke, who led Sullivan and others to take a stand against executions being carried out in their names, with the ethos of showing ‘love and compassion for all of humanity’.
Sullivan told UNILAD:
In Journey of Hope, we just understand very clearly that executions don’t offer us any hope.
Now, we are not against accountability. We want the right people convicted and the right people to be sentenced appropriately.
At the same time, we do not believe that any life is a disposable life. And when the state carries out executions, it adopts and upholds the same viscous value system of people who are murderers in the streets.
Religious beliefs aside, Sullivan regards capital punishment to be ‘a hollow instrument of death that continues the cycle of violence and death’, adding, ‘It does not offer any healing, it does not offer wholeness, it does not offer restoration.’
I think there’s a moral high ground that we can claim and we can stand on or occupy when we say ‘all killing, whether by the people in the street who are criminals or by the state, is wrong’.
I believe in the sentiments of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who said, ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth will leave society blind and toothless’.
We have to work for the sake of humanity and a future worth moving into. We have to figure out ways to be more humane, more peaceful, dare I say more loving and compassionate, with each other across the board.
‘Even for those who have angered us or hurt us the most. Love and compassion have the power to transform society,’ he continued. ‘And I hope that we will give love and compassion a better chance now than we ever have. Those two are the answer, I think, to society’s issues.’
If we would just dare and be bold enough and courageous enough to show love, and show compassion, even during the most uncertain of moments, I believe we will be agents of the transformation of your country, my country and the world around us.
Looking forward, Sullivan hopes that funding previously used for capital crimes would instead be used to support family members of murder victims, assisting with their therapy, economic recovery, and in ‘the restoration of their lives’.
In the coming weeks, the eyes of anti-death penalty campaigners across the world will be on President Biden, with many expressing hope for a fairer, more peaceful chapter in American politics.
If you have experienced a bereavement and would like to speak with someone in confidence contact Cruse Bereavement Care via their national helpline on 0808 808 1677.
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The New York Times
Death Penalty Information Center
The Washington Post
Death Penalty Information Center
University of Oxford