The Death Penalty in the U.S.: How It Works and Which Presidents Have Used It

Last year also marked the most civilian federal death penalties carried out in a single year since 1896, when 16 occurred under President Grover Cleveland.

Trump oversaw the federal executions of Brandon Bernard, Alfred Bourgeois, and Orlando Cordia Hall in the weeks after his failed reelection campaign. His administration has scheduled three more executions — of Lisa Montgomery, Cory Johnson, and Dustin Higgs — to be carried out before he leaves office. If these executions occur, Trump will hold the record for most federal executions during a lame-duck period, surpassing Cleveland, who oversaw three.

According to Cassandra Stubbs, project director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, “That President Trump has chosen to go forward with these executions even after his failed policies have been repudiated at the ballot box is indefensible.”

Why do people want to abolish the death penalty?

Nearly half of U.S. states — 22 in total — have already abolished the death penalty. Krinsky says that the U.S. stands alone among Western democracies in continuing to engage in capital punishment, and a growing number of countries are abolishing the practice. According to Roger-Mark De Souza, chief movement building officer of Amnesty International USA, 142 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice, equaling about three-quarters of all nations worldwide.

Since 2007, the United Nations General Assembly has voted eight times to adopt a resolution calling for a global moratorium on the death penalty, most recently in November 2020. Though the U.S. voted against it, public sentiment against capital punishment seems to be shifting in this country. A 2019 Gallup poll found that for the first time since they began asking the question, in 1985, a majority of Americans said that life imprisonment is a better punishment than execution for the crime of murder.

Many erroneously claim that execution saves taxpayer dollars in the long run. Ngozi Ndulue, senior director of research and special projects for the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), countered that argument, telling Teen Vogue, “The death penalty costs more than life imprisonment. Period.” She explained that the government spent at least $3 million on federal executions in 2020. Associated costs include extensive background checks to determine death-eligibility, segregated imprisonment of death row inmates, extra layers of jury selection, and paying to assign multiple federal attorneys to the case.

“[T]his is a life and death decision where you really can’t go backward,” Ndulue continued. “[W]e still see people who have been exonerated from death row after 30 years, after 40 years, after all of their processes have concluded.”

COVID-19-related safety for inmates also became a widespread concern amid lockdown orders. According to De Souza, more U.S. death row inmates died of COVID-19 than were executed in the modern era of the U.S. death penalty.

According to the DPIC, approximately 100 individuals travel to a prison for each federal execution. Following Orlando Hall’s killing on November 19, eight members of the Federal Bureau of Prisons execution team and Hall’s spiritual advisor contracted COVID-19.

In some respects, the pandemic has emboldened calls to end the federal death penalty. According to the ACLU’s Stubbs, “As the nation faces enormous fiscal challenges in light of COVID-19, ending the federal death penalty will free critical resources to work to priorities that will make us safer and our nation more just.”

Critics of the death penalty, such as Krinsky, have also cited racial disproportionality as a reason to favor abolition of the practice. “I think when you look at the track record in this country, that it’s wrong-headed and foolhardy to assume that we can fix this flawed process,” she said, “or that we can reach a point where we no longer see the dramatic [racial] disproportionality that has resulted.” 

Why does this wave of federal executions matter? 

Trump’s spree of federal executions would be unprecedented in magnitude and circumstance alone, but the cases themselves are also novel: In recent history, Honken was the first person to be executed for a crime committed in a state where the death penalty had been abolished, and Lezmond Mitchell was the first Native American to be federally executed.

The Biden administration has promised to abolish the power of federal execution and work to abolish it on the state level as well. Stubbs, for one, expresses hope: “By working to end the federal death penalty and prohibiting federal executions, President-elect Biden can banish the racist, costly, and failed federal death penalty to the dustbin of history where it belongs.”

Want more from Teen Vogue? Check this out: Republicans Like Betsy DeVos and Ted Cruz Are Cowards for Empowering Trump

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