As support for the death penalty has steadily declined in the U.S. in recent decades, the federal government under President Trump and Attorney General William Barr have been on a killing spree, executing 10 men on death row, with several more men and one woman scheduled to die in the final weeks before Trump leaves office on Jan. 20. If the executions are carried out as planned, Trump will have authorized the most executions of any president in more than 100 years. Incoming President Joe Biden says he intends to end the use of capital punishment by the federal government during his time in office.
Among those on death row is Lisa Montgomery, a severely mentally ill woman who was convicted of the horrific crime of killing a pregnant acquaintance and cutting a full-term child from the womb, which survived, with Montgomery raising the baby as her own. Montgomery had survived a brutal childhood, where her father and friends repeatedly raped her, while her mother prostituted her to help pay the bills.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Ngozi Ndulue, senior director of Research and Special Projects at the Death Penalty Information Center. Here she talks about some of the many ways that 2020 has been an aberrant year for the death penalty in the U.S.
NGOSI NDULUE: We’ve had a really unusual year in many ways with the death penalty in the U.S. We’ve had 17 executions total, and 10 of those executions were federal executions, and that’s the first time in modern history we’ve had that. And this was unusual both because of the history of federal executions, where we’ve gone 17 years without a single one. It’s also unusual because of the speed at which these happen. The last year that we had double-digit federal executions was in 1896. It’s also unusual because of some of the characteristics of the individual executions. We had the first execution of a Native American for a crime against another Native American on tribal land, and that caused a lot of protest from people of the Navajo Nation but other Native American tribes as well.
We had the youngest person executed in almost 70 years, and that was Brandon Bernard, who was 18 at the time of the crime. We also have the scheduled execution of Lisa Montgomery, where, if she’s executed in January, would be the first woman executed by the federal government in almost 70 years as well.
So, we’re really seeing aberrational activity at the federal level at the same time that we as a nation and the whole world are dealing with a pandemic that has upended so much of our normal life. And the response from the federal government in the midst of this pandemic has shown itself to be out of step with what other people are doing. So, between July and September, the federal government is the only jurisdiction that has carried out executions. There were only two other executions that were carried out after the pandemic was declared, one in Missouri and one in Texas. But really, states have stopped executions. They haven’t scheduled new ones. They’ve delayed executions where they had already been scheduled, so we’re really seeing a break with history on the part of the federal government.
But at the same time we’re seeing some very consistent factors, we’re seeing lower support for the death penalty, which we’ve seen decreasing throughout the years. Even before the pandemic, we were already on track for lower numbers of death sentences and executions. So we’re seeing a declined use of the death penalty across the country, and some of that has been affected by the pandemic, but we know there’s a longer term trend.
MELINDA TUHUS: Ngosi Ndulue, from what I know about these cases, these men and this woman really could be considered the worst of the worst. We don’t have time to go into the details, but their crimes really were horrible. So what’s your response to someone saying If anyone is going to be executed, these are the ones?
NGOSI NDULUE: I think that question about the worst of the worst is supposed to be at the heart of who gets sentenced to death, but what we see is that we’re not reliably seeing that in the death penalty and who’s being executed. I want to point out that the first people to be executed under federal executions was not based on some type of orderly chart about who is next and who was on death row last. It was a discretionary decision that was made by the attorney general and the Department of Justice, right? So I think there definitely was a lot of thought about who was going to be chosen to be first, and I think that there was this idea, especially for crimes against children, that there was something they wanted to showcase the federal death penalty in some way. We also see that in the fact that the first executions were announced during the time that Black Lives Matter protests and racial justice protests throughout the country were happening about general anti-Black racism and other broader issues.
And we noticed that the first three who were announced to be executed were white; we know that there were no Black people in that batch. We also know that’s very different than who is actually on death row. We know that federal death row is disproportionally black and disproportionally people of color. And we also know that racial bias comes into a number of places: about jury selection, about decisions about future dangerousness. So, I think I would say in thinking about the cases, there were choices made about which cases would be first, but even in that group of cases that were chosen to be first, we still have questions about “Are we truly looking at the worst of the worst?”
For more information, visit the Death Penalty Information Center at deathpenaltyinfo.org.
To learn more about the campaign to spare Lisa Montgomery from the death penalty, and/or to sign a petition TELL PRESIDENT TRUMP TO STOP THE EXECUTION OF LISA MONTGOMERY at moveon.org.