After the Supreme Court restored the death penalty in 1976, over a thousand men and women have been executed in the U.S. After thousands of defendants have been proven to be factually innocent of the crimes they were convicted of committing, the American public has grown somewhat more skeptical of the death penalty. At least 170 death row prisoners have been exonerated in this time period as well. Yet politicians and judges seem to grow even more fanatical in their embrace of killing people.
As COVID-19 claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, former President Trump cranked up the federal killing machine to carry out 13 executions in his last six months in office and all but three of the total federal executions since 1976. In a moment of irony, several federal executions themselves became COVID-19 “super spreader” events as guards and prisoners who were executed infected prison staff, witnesses, clergy and others. But Trump does not stand alone in his infatuation with state murder.
Nearly all the prisoners killed were sentenced under laws supported and partly written by then-Senator Joe Biden as part of the 1994 Crime Bill, signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Once convicted, the sentences were upheld and clemency or commutations denied by presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The sentences were also upheld by federal judges, up to the Supreme Court.
After decades of avidly supporting the death penalty, President Biden says he is now opposed to it. It remains to be seen what, if anything, Biden will do about the federal death penalty. While only Congress can repeal laws such as the death penalty, the president could, and should, commute the sentences of all federal death row prisoners to prevent a future bloodbath and order the Department of Justice to defer from seeking the death penalty.
As this month’s cover story explores, the last-minute killing spree shows the American death penalty has little to do with law and reason, and more to do with crass political agendas and posturing. The irony is that so many prisoners were executed with no political advantage to President Trump in his reelection campaign. At this point, there are very few if any people clamoring for more executions.
While federal and state government kill less than 100 prisoners annually through execution, thousands more die of medical neglect. COVID-19 continues to take its toll on American prisoners with over 20 percent of U.S. prisoners having been infected so far and at least 2,400 deaths. PLN continues to report the developments around COVID-19, but the news is fairly grim.
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