Dec 11, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Trump's last word on executions

Data: Federal Bureau of Prisons; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios
Data: Federal Bureau of Prisons; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

The Trump administration is shattering a gruesome record on its way out, executing more federal prisoners in a matter of months — including two this week — than over the past several decades combined.

Why it matters: President-elect Biden opposes the death penalty and has said he wants to end its use. New U.S. presidents can undo many of their predecessors' actions, but executions are uniquely irreversible.

Driving the news: Alfred Bourgeois, 56, was scheduled to be executed early Friday for torturing and killing his 2-year-old daughter.

  • Brandon Bernard, 40, was executed Thursday for participating as a teen in the group kidnapping of two youth ministers in 1999 that ended in murder. Advocates, including Kim Kardashian, asked President Trump to stay the execution.
  • These will bring to 10 the number of federal executions since July.
  • Another three federal inmates are scheduled for execution before Biden's inauguration on Jan. 20.

The big picture: Historically, states carry out most executions in the U.S. But in the last five months, more federal executions have taken place than in any year since the 1920s, according to Bureau of Prisons.

  • Before then, the federal government had only executed three people since 1963.
  • Federal executions had been stalled for 16 years, until Attorney General Bill Barr resumed federal capital punishment in July.
  • After Bernard and Bourgeois' deaths, 10 out of 17 total executions this year will have been done at the federal level, according to nonprofit advocacy group Death Penalty Information Center.

Between the lines: Overall, support for the death penalty has been steadily declining. This year, Colorado became the 22nd state to abolish the punishment.

Be smart: Trump has embraced his power to pardon allies. He courted voters of color in his re-election bid in part around his support for prison reform and a bipartisan bill that led to the release of at least 3,000 inmates, even as he privately second-guessed it.

  • But he hasn't wavered in his support for capital punishment — keeping it is part of his law-and-order platform despite concerns about racial disparities. And he's standing by his call for New York to adopt the death penalty in 1989 for the Central Park Five, who later were found to have been wrongly convicted of rape.

What to watch: Biden's criminal justice platform includes a pledge to "eliminate the death penalty," with legislation to end it at the federal level "and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example."

  • "The President-Elect opposes the death penalty, now and in the future, and as president will work to end its use," spokesman TJ Ducklo said in a statement.

What they're saying: Inimai Chettiar, federal legislative and policy director for the Justice Action Network, told Axios: “I would expect to see things revert back to how they were under Obama, but I think it likely they will go further than that."

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