At this time of year, most people are making holiday plans. Donald Trump will mark the season a different way: by killing people. The Associated Press reported on Monday that Trump’s administration will ramp up federal executions ahead of departing the White House. The Justice Department plans to execute five people in federal prison sentenced to death before President-elect Joe Biden assumes office on January 20. If all five executions take place, the administration will have killed 13 people since July alone. That would “cement Trump’s legacy as the most prolific execution president in over 130 years,” the AP observed.
It’s difficult to imagine a more fitting epitaph for the Trump presidency. To Trump and his enablers, the lives of others were never worth much. When migrants died in ICE custody, the administration remained silent. The COVID-19 dead he barely acknowledges and, indeed, really can’t, as long as he wants to pretend that the pandemic isn’t so bad. But a handful of deaths could matter. When Trump needed proof of the innate criminality of immigrants, he turned to Angel Moms, the parents of children killed by undocumented immigrants.
Death has another use for Trump, and it’s to prove his mettle as a law-and-order president. But his administration’s approach to capital punishment may further undermine arguments in its favor. Trump’s intense commitment to the death penalty reveals the risks inherent in granting the state the power to kill. At both the state and federal levels, the application of capital punishment is “capricious,” as Intelligencer’s Zak Cheney-Rice wrote earlier this year. The fickle qualities of this form of justice were advertised as soon as the Trump administration resumed federal executions in July after a 17-year hiatus.
When the federal government put Daniel Lewis Lee to death in July for his role in the 1996 slaying of an Arkansas family, it did so over the objections of the victims’ relatives. In statements to the press, they observed a disparity between the sentences given to Lee and to his co-conspirator, who received life in prison despite planning and initiating the brutal crime. Despite the family’s sentiments, Attorney General Bill Barr justified the execution as an act of closure intended specifically for them. “Lee finally faced the justice he deserved,” Barr said at the time. “The American people have made the considered choice to permit capital punishment for the most egregious federal crimes, and justice was done today in implementing the sentence for Lee’s horrific offenses.”
But in Barr’s mouth, justice means little. Killing a man who is already caged, over the protestations of those he’s alleged to have harmed, remedies no wrong and makes nothing whole. No one is safer because Lee is dead, and no one will be safer on January 20, after the administration finishes killing five more people. There is no evidence that the death penalty effectively deters violent crime. What matters to Trump, and to Barr, is the way things look. The executions are a way to show strength: Conservatives enforce order; liberals are too weak to bother.
Biden opposes the death penalty and has said he’ll work to end it at the federal level upon taking office. Trump’s killing spree might help Biden make his case. All presidents have power over life and death; the ability to lead us into war or out of it, to shape domestic policy in ways that either reduce or exacerbate suffering. They don’t need the death penalty, too.