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Trump administration on execution spree

The Trump administration has carried out nine federal executions in 2020, the first series of executions during a presidential lame-duck period in 130 years. Prior to the Trump presidency, a federal execution had not occurred since 2003.

Brandon Bernard, a gang member involved in the murder of a religious couple from Iowa in 1999, received a lethal injection of phenobarbital in Terre Haute, Indiana. He was only eighteen when the crime was committed and remains the youngest person to be executed at the federal level in the last 70 years. The case of Bernard was notable, with celebrities including Kim Kardashian West making active attempts to prevent his execution in the week leading up to his death, to no avail.

Image source: Bernard Defence Team

Yesterday, Alfred Bourgeois, 56, was executed. He was convicted of murder in 2004 for killing his two-year-old daughter. His defence team requested that the Supreme Court halt the execution, calling it unconstitutional due to Bourgeois' intellectual disability. The court rejected the request on Friday, with Justices Sotomayor and Kagan dissenting.

The Trump administration has three more federal executions scheduled prior to the inauguration of Joe Biden. The inmates awaiting execution are:

Excerpt taken from BBC 'In Trump's final days, a rush of federal executions'


Lisa Montgomery strangled a pregnant woman in Missouri before cutting out and kidnapping the baby in 2004. She is scheduled for execution on 12 January. Her lawyers have said she experienced brain damage from beatings as a child and suffers from serious mental illness. She will be the first woman to face federal execution in the US since 1953.
Cory Johnson was convicted for the murder of seven people, related to his involvement with the drug trade in Richmond, Virginia. Johnson's legal team has argued that he suffers from an intellectual disability, related to physical and emotional abuse he experienced as a child. His execution is scheduled for 14 January.
Dustin John Higgs was convicted in the 1996 kidnapping and murder of three young women in the Washington, DC area. Higgs did not kill any of his victims. His co-defendant Willis Haynes did, after being instructed to by Higgs. Haynes has said in court documents that Higgs did not threaten him, or force him to shoot. Higgs is scheduled for execution on 15 January.

The Federal Death Penalty

There have been 1,529 executions in the United States since 1976.

Only 13 of these have occurred at a federal level.

Under the Obama administration, the federal death penalty was placed on hold in order to examine and review the practice. This was motivated by a highly politicised failed execution in Oklahoma in which a prisoner regained consciousness and displayed signs of physical pain during the killing. President Trump’s Justice Department announced in mid-2019 that federal executions would resume.

As a federalist system, The Tenth Amendment of the U.S Constitution provides that states possess powers not granted to the federal government. Under this amendment, criminal justice is an inherently state power, however, Article I of the U.S Constitution gives the United States Congress the ability to make laws relating to 'issues of national concern'. Under both the Enumerated Powers Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause, congress has the capacity to legislate on powers that are regarded as that of the states.

The federal death penalty is governed by the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994. The Act dictates three distinct offences which the death penalty can be imposed for at this level. (1) homicide related offences (2) espionage and treason, (3) non-homicidal narcotics related offences. Importantly, this piece of legislation also contains provisions relating to how the penalty is procedurally carried out.

The execution of Bourgeois brings the 2020 total of federal executions to 10, a number that has not been matched since 1896.

Capital punishment is legal in 28 states U.S states.

Image source: https://www.themarshallproject.org/next-to-die

The Biden/Harris Stance

The Biden team is opposed to the death penalty. Vice-President-elect Harris has been a long-time critic of capital punishment. Kamala rejected the death penalty in 2003 while campaigning to be San Francisco District Attorney and rejected execution be used for those involved in the murder of a young police officer who died while on duty, ignoring backlash and pressure from within her party. Biden's road to opposition has been more complex. In 1994, Biden's crime bill put forth 60 federal crimes for which someone could receive a capital sentence. Today, Biden has promised to advocate for legislation eliminating the death penalty entirely.

Recommended resources:

  • Ted Talk, 'Lessons from death row inmates' by David Dow


  • 'The Next to Die' By The Marshall Project


  • Ted Talk, 'We need to talk about injustice' by Bryan Stevenson