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U.S. To Continue Executions Through Transition In Break With Precedent

The federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Ind., home to the U.S. government's death chamber. Executions there are set to continue even as the new administration prepares to take power.
Michael Conroy
The federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Ind., home to the U.S. government's death chamber. Executions there are set to continue even as the new administration prepares to take power.

The Justice Department is proceeding with plans for more federal executions in the closing days of President Trump's administration, including two scheduled shortly before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.

Attorney General William Barr announced the moves, connected with what he called "staggeringly brutal murders," in a statement late Friday.

The Justice Department said the directives amounted to a continuation of its policy since last year when it relaunched federal executions after an informal moratorium that had been in place for 17 years.

If the Justice Department plan moves forward, 13 people will have faced death by lethal injection during the Trump administration. Legal experts who follow capital punishment said that would be the most since the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who served 12 years in office before his death in 1945.

Robert Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center said the Trump Justice Department had behaved in ways that are "historically anomalous."

Until last week, when Orlando Hall underwent lethal injection at the death chamber in Indiana, he said, there had been no "lame-duck" federal executions in more than a century.

"In a normal presidency that followed the traditional norms of civility, you wouldn't see executions during a transition period," Dunham said. "The outgoing administration would defer to the incoming administration in matters like this."

Pending executions

Barr's order applies to Alfred Bourgeois, who abused and beat to death his young daughter in 2002; Cory Johnson, who murdered seven people in connection with his drug trafficking activities; and Dustin Higgs, who took part in crimes that left three women dead.

Their legal teams say Bourgeois and Johnson suffer from intellectual disabilities and that Higgs didn't pull the trigger to kill the women. Instead, the man who admitted firing the weapon was tried separately and was sentenced to life in prison.

Catholic activists, including Sister Helen Prejean, denounced what they described as a rush to execution.

"The federal government has already presided over the executions of eight people so far this year," said Hannah Riley, a spokeswoman at the Southern Center for Human Rights. "The death penalty is always unconscionable, but it is especially egregious to carry out executions as hundreds of people are dying of COVID-19 in this country every day."

Dunham said the unusual moves by the Justice Department also extended to an announcement about a decision to seek capital punishment against a defendant who has not yet gone to trial. Last week, federal prosecutors in New York City said they had been authorized by Barr to seek death against a member of the MS-13 gang accused in several killings.

The Biden transition team didn't comment directly on the Justice Department plan. But during the campaign, candidate Biden pledged to eliminate the death penalty, citing 160 people who were sentenced to capital punishment and were later exonerated.

Biden said he wanted to work with Congress to pass a law to eliminate federal capital punishment and "incentivize" states to follow that example.

A transition spokesman, T.J. Ducklo, told NPR: "The president-elect opposes the death penalty, now and in the future, and as president will work to end its use."

Lawyers who follow federal capital punishment trends said they hoped that Biden, who supported expanding the death penalty 30 years ago, only to reverse course, had learned from hard experience that informal moratoriums don't solve the problem.

The Death Penalty Information Center's Dunham said he thought the new Justice Department should take action, or the incoming president should, to address longstanding inequities in the application of the death penalty by using the clemency process.

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Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.