Death penalty to make a comeback

States don’t execute very many people these days, so the Trump Administration intends to take up the slack by reviving the death penalty on the federal level for the first time in nearly two decades.

Given the president’s love for things as they used to be, it’s not surprising.

Last year, the states put 25 men to death, 13 of them in Texas and 12 in some of the 28 other states that haven’t abolished the death penalty. There were three executions in Tennessee, two each in Alabama, Florida and Georgia and one in Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota. This is down impressively from the peak year of 1999 when there were 98 executions.

There have been 10 executions in the nation so far this year and if things go as planned, there will be 21 more by the end of the year. 

This number doesn’t include the five men the Justice Department plans to execute in the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., three of them just before Christmas and the other two right after the New Year.  

They will be killed by the lethal injection of a single drug known as pentobarbital, a drug that has been proven effective in euthanizing animals, along with humans in Texas, Georgia and Missouri. It replaces the three-drug combination states had to stop using when drug companies objected to their products being used in legally killing people. If only they had been as sensitive about the use of their opioids.

The five convicted killers were obviously carefully chosen. All of them numbered children among their victims and four of the five are white.  But none of them committed crimes like treason, political assassination and espionage, the offenses cited in the Death Penalty Act passed by Congress in 1994 to spell out when federal capital punishment should be used, according to a report on PBS.  

“The Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentences imposed by our justice system,” said Attorney General William Barr in a press release announcing the federal death penalty’s rebirth July 25.

There has been relatively little enthusiasm for a federal death penalty in most of the past century. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, which began keeping records on executions in 1927, reports only 37 federal executions since that year.  

The last two were Timothy McVeigh in 2001 for his role in the killing of 168 in the Oklahoma federal building bombing in 1995, and Louis Jones, a Gulf War veteran who was executed in 2003 for kidnapping, raping and murdering a young woman at an Air Force base in Texas. He argued in his defense that nerve gas during the war had led to his crime.  

McVeigh and Lewis were the only federal executions in this century and the first since 1963, so an argument can be made that the administrations of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama were negligent in upholding the rule of law by Attorney General Barr’s standards. 

By strengthening its commitment to the death penalty, the Trump administration reinforces the United States’ dubious position as one of only a very few nations in the Americas and Europe that legally kills criminals. Abolition of the penalty is a precondition for admission to the European Union.

Capital punishment is still the rage in places like Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and China, which kills more people legally than all the other nations combined. Not very good company for the U.S. of A.

So why did President Trump’s attorney general suddenly decide to return to this somewhat questionable, or, if you prefer, barbaric practice? Could it have been a political move?

Support for the death penalty is starkly split along party lines.  According to the most recent polls, the death penalty has the support of 35% of the nation’s Democrats, 52% of unaffiliated voters and a whopping 77% of Republicans. 

But surely President Trump and his attorney general wouldn’t take such a serious step just to please their political base, even on the eve of an election year. Would they?


Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.