There is a season for everything, and this should be a time to heal and a time to rebuild.
But in Donald Trump’s America, this is a time to kill and a time to evade justice.
While most Americans were enjoying the Thanksgiving holiday, President Trump was sowing the seeds of his ugly, winter of discontent. Trump announced the pardon of one infamous turkey: former national security adviser Michael Flynn who lied twice to the FBI about Russia. Trump found time for the pardon while expanding ways the federal government can kill people and scheduling record-setting executions on the eve of President-elect Biden’s inauguration.
According to the newly released 2020 annual Gallup poll, Americans’ support for the death penalty is at its lowest level in half a century. Here in Colorado, the legislature abolished the death penalty this year and Gov. Jared Polis commuted the sentence of all three black, death row inmates.
And, while the polling evidences the continuing erosion in death penalty support across all demographics, Trump’s new Draconian execution rules now allow the government to execute inmates by firing squads, inhaling poisonous gas, and electrocution.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department announced plans to execute three more inmates on federal death row, increasing the total lame duck executions to five. If the Trump administration follows through, it will have executed 13 prisoners since July.
This is astounding considering only three people were executed by the federal government between 1970-2020, according to the nonprofit organization Death Penalty Information Center.
But the madness does not stop there.
Of the remaining five executions, four are black men. Racial bias against defendants of color has been well documented. The lack of deterrent effect that the death penalty has as a punishment has also been long established.
Brandon Bernard, age 40, will be the youngest person executed in nearly 70 years for a crime he committed as a teenager. Bernard was one of five participants during a carjacking and robbery of Todd and Stacie Bagley. One of the teenagers shot the couple in the head, then afterward, Bernard lit their car on fire. He was convicted by a nearly all-white jury in a trial where his attorney failed to make an opening statement or call any witnesses in the penalty phase. Bernard has been a model prisoner, who mentors at-risk youth and five of the nine surviving jurors no longer support a death sentence. The former prosecutor has penned a remorseful op-ed saying, “executing Brandon would be a terrible stain on our nation’s honor”.
Dustin Higgs was convicted of kidnapping and murdering three young women in 1966. Higgs, like Bernard, didn’t pull the trigger; that man was sentenced to life in prison.
The fifth inmate, Lisa Montgomery, who reportedly suffers from severe mental illness caused by a life of abuse and sexual assault, will be the first woman to be federally executed in almost 70 years.
Make no mistake: these are all grisly and sickening crimes that deserve to be appropriately punished.
The last time the federal government carried out an execution between a presidential election and the inauguration of a new president was 1889.
Most presidents do not harken their darkest angels for legacy building, but then again, this is carnival barker Donald Trump. His love affair with the death penalty has spanned decades.
In 1989, Trump bought $85,000 of ads in four local, New York newspapers calling for the execution of five Black and Latino teenagers who were wrongfully convicted of raping a white jogger in New York City’s Central Park. Trump called on New York to “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY” for the “Central Park Five”. Even after the teenagers were exonerated following the confession of the perpetrator and DNA evidence, Trump continued to maintain that they were criminals.
Trump’s aggression is also seen during his 2016 campaign. On countless occasions, Trump tagged Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl “a dirty, rotten traitor” and called for his execution by rifle shots or to be thrown from a plane because Bergdahl abandoned his post in Afghanistan in 2009. Bergdahl was subsequently captured by the Taliban and held as a prisoner of war for five years before ultimately being dishonorably discharged.
Juxtapose Trump’s unconscionable execution spree with what looks like pardon season for the privileged few.
In addition to Flynn, Trump is likely to contemplate pardons for some of the eight Trump associates who have either been charged or convicted of various crimes.
And, waiting in line behind them are the pre-emptive pardons list led by Rudy Guiliani, the Trump family, and, of course, Trump himself.
Justice is a dish best served cold by Trump, unless you have connections.
It’s time to end the death penalty in America. And, it’s time for Donald Trump to go.
Doug Friednash is a Denver native, a partner with the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber and Schreck and the former chief of staff for Gov. John Hickenlooper.
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