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Trump and Capital Punishment: Legitimate Timing or Self-Serving Political Theater?

When executions seem to coincide with presidential elections, we ask ourselves if it was for political benefit. Did Trump manipulate the system to gain votes?

by Marc Bullaro

Death by lethal injection. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The issue is not whether the death penalty is constitutional; it is. The crimes committed by the condemned inmates were abhorrent. However, 10 people have been executed since July 2020-- seven of them just weeks before the presidential election in November, and one executed on Dec 10, International Human Rights Day. All were convicted of appalling murder related charges that the juries believed were worthy of a sentence of death. But were the inmates executed to help Trump win a second term?

The crimes of federal death row inmates executed in 2020 and those scheduled for execution in 2021 were brutal and vicious and their fate was defensibly sealed by juries. But should death row inmates be executed to help politicians get elected?

The issue is not whether the death penalty is constitutional. It is. The issue before us is whether condemned inmates should be executed or their executions scheduled to coincide with elections so a politician can gain a personal political benefit.

Interior of Cellblock Housing Death Row. Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Traditionally in American criminal justice death row inmates are executed pursuant to the following sociological and legal rationale; incapacitation, vindication, deterrence, retribution and closure. In American jurisprudence personal political gain is not an accepted reason to carry out an execution. Has Donald Trump exploited this legal process?

Although President Trump was impeached on bribery and corruption charges, is in jeopardy of facing state level prosecutions after he leaves office, has received much scrutiny for violating the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, has been accused by adversaries of committing federal crimes and has handed out pardons to people who have committed crimes that have benefited him, he still has to the contrary campaigned as the self-proclaimed “law and order” candidate in both 2016 and 2020.

Prior to the Trump administration, the last federal inmate to be executed was Louis Jones in 2003. He was convicted of a kidnapping that resulted in death. After a 17-year hiatus, federal executions resumed under Trump in July 2020 with 10 people executed since then, seven of them just weeks before the presidential election in November and one executed on Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day. All were convicted of appalling murder related charges that the juries believed were worthy of a sentence of death. But were the inmates executed to help Trump win a second term?

In addition, there are three more federal executions scheduled in the weeks before Trump leaves office. Similarly, the three inmates committed horrendous murders.
One, Lisa Montgomery, scheduled to die on January 12, was convicted of murdering a pregnant woman and cutting her unborn baby from her body.  Are these upcoming executions being used to cement Trump’s “law and order” persona for a possible 2024 run?

The crimes committed by the condemned inmates were abhorrent. However, it appears that the inmates may have been executed not as much for punishment but instead more for the political capital of Donald Trump.

They have been lingering on death row for years. Their years on death row from sentence to execution ranged from 14 to 25 years. Timothy McVeigh convicted of murder for the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City was executed five and a half years after his death sentence. Trump assumed the presidency in 2017. So why now? Why not in 2017?  Some of the original execution dates were scheduled for Dec. 2019 and Jan 2020, however, the court imposed an injunction. After the injunction was lifted eight executions were rescheduled for July through November, just weeks before the 2020 presidential election and five more during the lame duck period of Trump’s presidency after his loss to Joe Biden.

The electric chair at Auburn State Prison. Photo: Picryl

I suggest that the “reality show” President used these executions as a political strategy to solidify the divide in the country and provide more “red meat” to his base anticipating it would help his re-election. Also, what appears to be another important objective for him is to always set new records. Had the court not imposed the temporary injunction there may have been more executions.

Some may wonder why the executions continue to be scheduled after the election. If the executions would have stopped after Trump’s loss to Joe Biden it may have provided a hint to the actual reality, that the executions were a re-election strategy that failed.

There were 10 federal inmates executed by the Trump administration in 2020. The first executed on July 14 was Daniel Lewis Lee who was convicted of killing three. According to authorities Lee had intentions of creating a white ethno-state in Spokane, Washington. Five of the first six executions were white males and one Native American male. Was this scheduling a coincidence or was this designed to give the appearance that there was no racial component to the executions? The next four inmates executed after that were black males.

There are three federal inmates scheduled for execution in January with the last scheduled on Jan 15, five days before Trump is scheduled to leave office. Sentenced to death in 2007, 1993 and 2000, they are one white woman and two black men who were also convicted of abominable crimes.

Central Park Five Awarded, $40M settlement for wrongful conviction of a crime. Photo: WSJ

In 1989 Donald Trump took out newspaper ads in New York City calling for the return of the death penalty subsequent to the “Central Park Five” arrests where five male black and Latino teenagers were accused of sexually assaulting a white female in New York City. All were convicted and subsequently released based on DNA evidence. Were these ads a look into Trump’s subconscious and a harbinger of his political aspirations?  I venture to say that it was. Yet, during his presidency he called for criminal justice and prison reform which resulted in nothing more than a veneer.

During the last weeks of his presidency as Trump seeks pardons for his family, his friends and even himself, he continues to  expedite death row executions.

It appears that Trump is executing people not for the sociological and legal reasons that 55% of Americans agree with but rather under the color of law for personal political gain.

There are currently 52 people on federal death row. On Jan. 20 President Joe Biden can pardon or commute the sentences of all federal death row inmates or leave the sentences as they are and not pursue any executions. The death penalty in America is a controversial issue. The fair administration of justice is essential. I would suggest that the administration of justice should be left to the Courts, not Presidents with political agendas.

The good and fair administration of justice must prevail in America.

 

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