Every presidential administration rushes to rack up a last few accomplishments in its final weeks, but never has the race to finish an agenda included killing a slew of federal prisoners.
Since July, when the federal government executed the first prisoner in nearly two decades (most death penalties are meted out in state prisons), it has used lethal injections to kill eight people, and intends to kill five more before President Donald Trump and his attorney general, William Barr, leave office Jan. 20.
Were it not for the sudden — and overtly political — resumption of federal executions under Trump and Barr, there would have been seven executions nationwide this year, the fewest since 1983 and part of a downward trend from a peak of 98 executions in 1999.
So who is the Trump administration in such a hurry to kill? Again, for apparent political reasons, the condemned include people convicted of murdering children, of raping and killing victims, of conducting their own executions of people involved in the drug trade and of slaying people the perpetrators believed posed a threat to them for other crimes.
Yes, these people committed horrendous acts that curdle the soul. But they also include severely damaged people. Lisa Montgomery was convicted of murdering a woman and then carving a baby from her womb to raise as her own. Horrific.
But as advocates have argued in seeking a commutation, Montgomery suffered horrific abuse herself — she was the victim of incest and sex trafficking, and she has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and other debilitating mental illnesses that require psychotropic drugs. What public or penological good is gained from killing her?
Similarly, Alfred Bourgeois faces execution for the torture and murder of his 2-year-old daughter despite clear evidence that he has been intellectually disabled since childhood, with IQ scores no higher than 70 and evidence that his adaptive performance falls far below norms — characteristics that seemingly should have precluded capital punishment under previous Supreme Court standards. Yet the courts denied his appeal over legal technicalities.
President-elect Joe Biden opposes the death penalty and has said he will work to end its use, so we expect the federal killing spree will end on Jan. 20. We also hope that Trump and Barr's cynical resumption of federal executions will stand as yet another example of the inherent arbitrariness of how this country decides whom to execute, and when.
From the decision to seek the death penalty to the signature on the death warrant, decisions are made by people propelled by their own motivations, some sincere, some conniving and opportunistic. And now we are poised to witness the ultimate in arbitrary decisions. One president says kill them. The next president says don't. This is a just system?
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE LOS ANGELES TIMES