Elections, Human Rights, Populism, Racism, Radical extremism, Violence

Executions of prisoners in the US as an electoral argument

Feb 5 2021

By Navi Pillay, Federico Mayor, Bill Richardson, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and Asunta Vivó Cavaller (*)

The wave of executions in the United States, carried out at the federal level, of thirteen persons in the last six months of the Trump administration, is a tragic record that deserves the denunciation and the strongest rejection of the International Commission against the Penalty of Death (ICDP).

The executions carried out included that of

  • Lisa Montgomery, the only woman facing the death penalty at the federal level, was the first woman who was executed by federal authorities since 1953.
  • Lezmond Mitchell, the first Native American, who was executed for the murder of members of his own community, whose representatives repeatedly expressed opposition to the death penalty as incompatible with their culture and traditions.
  • Brandon Bernard and Christopher Andre Vialva, both adolescent criminals. Mr Bernard, who was sentenced to death for a crime he committed when he was 18 years old, was the youngest person to be executed in the United States in nearly 70 years. Mr Vialva, who was 19 years old when he committed the crime for which he was charged with the death penalty, was the first African-American who was executed at the federal level since executions were resumed in July 2020.
  • Dustin Lee Honken, the first federal execution in 57 years for a crime committed in a state that had abolished the death penalty, that of Iowa, which did so in 1965.
  •  Emmett LeCroy, Alfred Bourgeouis, Corey Johnson, or Wesley Iva Purkey – all persons with serious symptoms of intellectual disability.

In each and every one of these cases related to these executions, there are arguments against it being carried out and hence worth fighting for. There is a list of the circumstances of serious concern surrounding the persons whose executions were carried out and the executions themselves which had been highlighted but ignored by the authorities who went ahead and carried out the executions. After all, one could argue that there is not a single death penalty free of objections.

These executions were carried out after 17 years when the death penalty was not carried out at the federal level in the US. For the first time in the country’s history, the federal government has carried out more executions in 2020 (ten executions) than in all the states of the Union combined (seven executions). In less than six months, the number of federal civil executions has exceeded that authorized by any of his predecessors in the 20th or 21st centuries, regardless of their political ideology, be it Republican or Democratic. Never before has a federal government carried out more than six executions since World War II. And the last time the United States government carried out an execution between a Presidential election and the inauguration of the new President for a federal crime was almost 132 years ago, on January 25, 1889, during the presidency of Grover Cleveland.

Executions resumed in the last six months of President Trump’s term, starting in July 2020, coinciding with the electoral campaign. They were signed by former Attorney General William Bar to reinforce the message of “law and order”, at a time when the head of the White House was facing a decline in popularity due to the way he handled the pandemic and the force of the Black Lives Matter movement. Therefore, it is not that the defence of the death penalty was used as a political argument; it is that the executions were activated, that the 13 persons were deprived of their lives, as these executions were used as an electoral slogan. It is difficult to conceive of something more insidious.

But it is an exceptional episode, and as such we denounce it, like the cruel rattle of retributionism, as it could soon be left behind. It is because these 13 executions have taken place at a time when the United States as a whole and individual states, in particular, have continued their progressive and gradual trend away from the death penalty. As of the end of December 2020, at the state level, more than two-thirds of states (34 states) have either abolished capital punishment (22) or not carried out executions in the last ten years (12), including three states with gubernatorial moratorium.

President Joe Biden has affirmed his willingness to work with Congress to pass legislation that eliminates capital punishment at the federal level and that he will encourage states with the death penalty to follow suit. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there are 49 people on federal death row at this moment and more than 2,500 people on death row nationwide, including Spaniard Pablo Ibar, who was sentenced to death in Florida.

On behalf of ICDP, we urge the new Biden administration to fulfill this objective, to reverse the cruel setback in the fight against the death penalty caused by his Presidential predecessor and to lead a new impulse of abolitionism within the framework of an equally renewed struggle of the United States of America in extending its defence of human rights.


(*) Judge Navi Pillay, President of the Commission and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; Federico Mayor, former president of the Commission and former director general of UNESCO; Bill Richardson, honorary commissioner and former governor of New Mexico; José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, honorary commissioner and former president of the Government of Spain and Asunta Vivó Cavaller, executive director of the Commission

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