There has been so much news, way too much news, in the dying days of the Trump presidency that I’m afraid you might have missed an important one — Donald Trump’s killing spree.
This is not like the bogus right-wing accusation — raise your hand if you remember the infamous Jerry Falwell-distributed film — that Bill Clinton, whose crime family apparently predates the Biden crime family, was busily killing off his enemies. Or the shameful Fox News promotion of the completely untethered-to-realty conspiracy theory that Seth Rich, a DNC employee, had been the victim of a political assassination for a supposed role involving WikiLeaks.
All Trump did, with a boost from the Supreme Court, was to have executed 13 federal death row prisoners since July. To put that in perspective, that’s three times as many federal executions in the past six months as there have been in the previous 60 years. And it gets worse: The last time a lame duck president executed a federal prisoner goes back 132 years ago to Grover Cleveland.
Why were these people suddenly executed? I mean, what was in it for Trump? I’m pretty sure it had nothing to do with his casual acquaintance with the concept of justice.
Well, it turns out that Joe Biden was campaigning against the death penalty. At minimum, he could have commuted the sentences of those on federal death row to life in prison. For Trump, the law-and-order president when it suits him, the death penalty was perfect campaign material.
Forget for the moment all the evidence showing the death penalty has little to no effect on capital crimes. Forget for a moment that the death penalty is applied so arbitrarily — remember when within weeks of each other, separate Colorado juries opted for life without parole for Aurora theater mass murderer James Holmes and Fero’s Bar & Grill killer Dexter Lewis? — it can’t possibly be justice.
For this crime against jurisprudence, you can blame Bill Barr, who was there at the beginning pushing for the spree, but he wasn’t there at the end. I blame Trump and, of course, Trump’s 3-of-9-appointed-justices Supreme Court. Trump is a long-time capital punishment guy. He made headlines by taking out full-page ads in four New York newspapers calling for the death penalty for the Central Park Five, ages 14 to 16. It turned out they were wrongly convicted in the infamous 1989 rape case and released decades later, although Trump has, of course, refused to admit he was dead wrong.
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There’s a trend here. This was not just your ordinary death-penalty spree. In an investigative piece, ProPublica found that “Officials gave public explanations for their choice of which prisoners should die that misstated key facts from the cases. 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.”
That’s on Trump’s end and Barr’s end. But what about the new Supreme Court? When the court refused to help Trump overthrow the election results, some expressed hope that maybe the court wasn’t as bad as we thought. Think again.
Here’s what Sonia Sotomayor said in her dissent before the latest execution: “This Court has consistently rejected inmates’ credible claims for relief. This court has even intervened to lift stays of execution that lower courts put in place, thereby ensuring that these prisoner challenges would never receive a meaningful airing. The Court made these weighty decisions in response to emergency applications, with little opportunity for proper briefing and consideration, often in just a few short days or even hours.”
Sotomayor called the 13 cases “an expedited spree of executions,” adding that “This is not justice. After waiting almost two decades to resume federal executions, the government should have proceeded with some measure of restraint to ensure it did so lawfully. When it did not, this Court should have. It has not.”
If you missed the story, it may have been because it has been buried under the news of looming impeachment, the inaugural, the Trump-incited Capitol putsch (even Mitch McConnell now says Trump “provoked” the mob), the COVID deaths approaching 400,000, the warp-speed vaccines failing to reach people’s arms, the economy still in shambles, too many schools still closed. As I write this on Tuesday morning, we wait to see if Trump will pardon himself — in an unprecedented move by an unprecedented president — as well as his crime family for all and any federal crimes they may have committed during Trump’s reign. We know he’ll pardon, as he already has, a list of Trump cronies.
And to add to — actually subtract from — Trump’s legacy, here’s what the Death Penalty Information Center wrote of those executed in the spree: “All but one person executed last year had evidence of one or more of the following: serious mental illness; brain injury, developmental brain damage or an IQ in the intellectually disabled range; chronic serious childhood trauma, neglect and/or abuse. Three were teenagers at the time of their offenses. With (Dustin) Higgs’ death, more than half of the people executed by the Trump administration have been people of color.”
The statististics show you’re far more likely to be executed if you’re a person of color, if you’re poor, if you are unlucky enough to have been convicted in one of the few jurisdictions that still traffic in the death penalty.
Trump spent his final full day in office deciding whom to pardon and commute. I wonder how much time he spent on any of the 13 death-penalty cases. He could have commuted or at least delayed the executions of Cory Johnson and Dustin Higgs, both convicted of multiple murders but both who had tested positive for COVID-19. A federal district court had ruled that pentobarbital, used in most lethal injections, would cause their lungs to fill in such a way that would resemble waterboarding. An appeals court overruled the district court, and it was left to the Supreme Court justices to decide. We know how they decided.
Higgs was the last to be executed. The spree is over for now. And while Trump is halfway out the door on his way to Mar-o-Lago, Trump’s Supreme Court will be with us for years.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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