On Thursday night, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an 11th-hour stay of request filed by Brandon Bernard, who was sentenced to death for taking part in a double-murder in 1999, when he was 18 years old. At 9:27 p.m., he was executed by lethal injection at a federal penitentiary in Indiana, becoming the ninth American to be executed this year.
This summer, in the midst of a pandemic, the Trump administration ended a 17-year hiatus on federal executions. “We owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” William Barr said in a 2019 decree that the Department of Justice would renew the practice. But that rationale quickly fell apart when the Bureau of Prisons executed its first ward since Barr’s announcement: On July 15, 2020, Daniel Lewis Lee was killed by a lethal injection of pentobarbital despite the protestations of his victims’ family members, who wanted him to live. Two days after Lee’s execution, another inmate scheduled for death, Wesley Ira Purkey, experienced “a near-drowning” after being injected with the same drug, according to a medical expert who saw the autopsy.
Since Lee’s death this summer, the federal government has executed a total of eight people through pentobarbital injections. (Previously, federal executions had involved a three-drug cocktail, a regimen that was abandoned by Barr in part because pharmaceutical companies stopped distributing to the federal government.) His death was a historic one for the president, who broke a 130-year precedent of holding off on executions during the lame-duck period.
With Trump on his way out of office, he and his attorney general plan to execute another four inmates in a last-minute rush before the inauguration of Joe Biden, who opposes capital punishment. The next inmate, Alfred Bourgeois, will be executed on Friday at the same prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, while the final execution, of Dustin Higgs, will take place less than a week before Biden becomes president. Unless any legal challenges delay the lethal injections, Trump will have executed more Americans than any president in a given year since 1896, a grim record that he set in just seven months.