Will Trumps’ Record-Setting Execution Spree Create Biden’s “Dukakis Moment?”
Even without Tuesday’s execution of William LeCroy, the Trump Administration had already racked up more executions in ten weeks than any president since the 1950's.
With today’s (9/24/2020) execution of Christopher Vialva, there will be several additional noteworthy facts about this federal execution spree:
- Seven federal executions within eleven weeks ties the seven executions during President Harry Truman’s entire 8 years in office.
- This is the first federal execution of a prisoner who was still in his teens at the time of the crime, who was also developmentally delayed due to a bout of meningitis as an infant.
- This will be the first federal execution of a Black man after five Caucasians and the only American Indian on death row.
No other federal executions are currently scheduled, but the original intention of these executions has been achieved. The president’s reelection campaign scripted these executions perfectly as part of their “law and order” messaging.
In fact, immediately following the first federal execution in 17 years, the Trump campaign issued an e-mail touting the achievement and challenging Joe Biden to explain why he would not execute an “evil killer” such as Daniel Lee. The e-mail celebrates achieving “total justice” for the murder victims when, in that case, the victim’s family pleaded with the President to not carry out the execution and instead commute the sentence to life without parole.
Two of the executions took place during the week of the Republican National Convention. There was no mention of these executions during the convention, but surely it was on the tip of the president’s tongue. President Trumps’ patient restraint has been remarkable.
However, we won’t have to wait much longer. Next week is the first live presidential debate, when we may see President Trump pull this out of his pocket as a way to distinguish himself from Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
“I’ve executed seven killers,” Trump will say. “You Democrats are weak on crime. Your platform calls for abolishing executions. Why should we let such evil killers live?”
Seven prisoners will have been killed to create this practically unavoidable bear trap. Will Biden step in it, or skirt it? It will be tricky to address this challenge without giving the Trump campaign exactly the sound bite all of these executions are designed to produce. Will this be Joe Biden’s “Dukakis moment,” or is he ready to effectively pivot, to be pro-victim and tough on crime while also clearly and concisely explaining why the death penalty fails us as a public policy and a crime-fighting tool?
For the younger set, in the 1988 presidential race, Massachussetts Governor Michael Dukakis gave a matter-of-fact response of opposition to the death penalty when he was challenged in a live debate by George H.W. Bush to explain how he (Dukakis) would react if his wife were to be murdered. This created an opening that the Bush campaign exploited so effectively that Dukakis was never able to recover.
Times were different then, and we know so much more now then we did then about how the death penalty fails us as a public policy. Public opinion on the matter has shifted significantly, and many conservatives, republicans, and other people in the “pro-life” community now reject capital punishment.
Joe Biden, long a champion of the death penalty, surprised everyone when his presidential campaign announced a criminal justice policy that does not support capital punishment. His stated policy points to the concern of wrongful convictions, a concern so real that his web page needs to update the numbers. It says “Over 160 individuals” have been exonerated and released from death row, but as of last week that number is now 172. That number will only grow.
Today is the seventh scheduled federal execution under the Trump administration. So far, every one of these executions have been carried out, despite the pandemic and in some cases, with questionable legal shenanigans.
The day President Trump took office there were at least 11 federal death row prisoners who had exhausted their appeals and were ready for an execution date. Why did the Trump team wait 27 months to announce execution dates? Simply put, Team Trump wanted to exploit the hot-button issue of the death penalty to help with the Trump reelection effort. The dates were originally set for December and January, right at the beginning of the primary and caucus season for Democrats. Various legal challenges stayed those dates, but the legal challenge to questions regarding the method of execution was dismissed by April, conveniently allowing dates to be re-set so as to play perfectly into the convention and debate schedule. Here we go.
Pivot Points on the Death Penalty:
- We can be safe from dangerous individuals and hold them accountable without killing them. This is what we do in the vast majority of cases where the death penalty is possible. Most killers get a sentence of “death by incarceration,” also known as life in prison with no possibility of parole.
- We know the death penalty does not deter killers any more than incarceration does, but simply trying for a death sentence means that prosecutors are going to spend at least twice as much money in a capital trial as they would if they were not seeking an execution. Every death penalty trial is a gamble with tax-payer’s money because even if a conviction is certain, fewer and fewer juries’ hand down death sentences these days.
- Executions do not serve the needs of murder victim families, and it is a misnomer to suggest that the possible execution of a killer years in the future might help the victim families. What society is really doing when we offer the death penalty as a commodity for murder victim families is asking a tiny percentage of victim families to put their healing process on hold for decades in the hope of possible execution in the future. At the same time, using the death penalty so infrequently sends the message to the vast majority of murder victim families that, “your loved one was not valuable enough for us to seek or win a death sentence.”
- Executions run the risk of getting it wrong in a way that cannot be corrected. At this writing, there have been 172 exonerations of wrongly convicted Americans sent to death row, and those are just the ones who have been freed so far. How many are waiting? How many have been killed? Even one wrongful execution is too many.
- The death penalty is racist in its application. One of the greatest indicators of which killers get a death sentence is that the victim was white. The maps that show where lynchings happened regularly are remarkably similar to the maps where the most state executions have taken place. With the new report from the death penalty information center, we now understand more clearly than ever before just how pervasive systemic racism is in the criminal legal system.
- If for no other reason than to live up to the bedrock foundation of our legal system, the four words carved into the face of the US Supreme Court building (Equal Justice Under Law), we must abolish the death penalty.
What is Death Penalty Action doing about it?
Death Penalty Action has built a coalition of nearly 200 organizations so far, calling on Congress to address this issue. The specific requests are:
- Speak out against the upcoming federal executions on September 22 & 24, 2020;
- Address pervasive and systemic racism in the criminal legal system by ending the federal death penalty;
- Remove the power of the president to use executions for his own political purposes by passing legislation to end the federal death penalty and prohibit any further federal executions;
- Investigate the Trump reelection campaign’s scripting of federal executions and address any ethics violations or violations of the law, if found;
- Investigate the conduct of the Attorney General, the Department of Justice, and the Bureau of Prisons in light of troubling facts raising questions about the legality and constitutionality of the executions conducted on July 14 & 16, 2020;
- Close the legal loophole that allowed the federal government to override the Navajo Nation’s stated desire that Lezmond Mitchell not face execution.
Add your group to the organizational sign-on letter here.
Visit this page for more that you can do to help stop federal executions.