Editorial: Reflect with Contrition: On the Federal Death Penalty

In July 2019, then Attorney General William Barr ordered the reinstatement of the federal death penalty. This marked the first time in 16 years that executions were restored in the federal system. There had been a hiatus on this barbaric practice at the federal level since 2003, which aligned with a general shift in public opinion away from support of the death penalty.

In an added bit of grotesquerie, Barr’s Justice Department authorized several cruel and unusual forms of execution this past November, including such 19th-century relics as the firing squad. As Hailey Fuchs noted in the New York Times, there seemed to be no practical cause for the ruling other than to demonstrate how rabidly the administration wants to carry out the death penalty; the only method of execution the federal government has used for decades is lethal injection, making Barr’s authorization an embodiment of the emptiness of state-sanctioned violence: ruthless, pointless, and utterly inhumane.

Prior to the November ruling, the federal government had already executed an unprecedented eight people in 2020 alone, including three in a span of four days over the summer. In December two more people were executed, bringing the year’s total to 10. Three more executions are scheduled for 2021, and the administration has shown no indication that it will be offering commutation. If the three go forward as planned, Donald Trump will have presided over 13 federal executions in his final year in office. This would make him the most prolific execution president since Grover Cleveland, who oversaw the deaths of 16 civilians in 1896. Cleveland’s administration was also the last time a federal execution occurred during a lame-duck period after a presidential election until this year.

To give some context to these statistics, this is the first time in US history that the federal government has executed more civilians in a single year than all the states that still practice capital punishment combined. Of those states, only five—Georgia, Missouri, Alabama, Tennessee, and Texas—carried out executions this year, and only Texas performed more than one. This was the fewest number of state executions since 1983. Janine Jackson of Fair.org puts it starkly: “the Trump administration [has] executed more people in five months than the federal government executed during the previous five decades.”

Part of the reason for the comparatively low number of state-level executions was the states’ decision to heed coronavirus protocols. As Emma Grey Ellis writes in Wired:

Staff at prisons and jails across the US have struggled and often failed to curb the spread of coronavirus among incarcerated people. The quarters are too close, and the population risks infection any time a new inmate arrives or a guard returns to work, which is why visitation has been suspended in the vast majority of facilities. Against that backdrop, executions look like a public health nightmare. They typically involve hundreds of people: an army of prison staff plus lawyers, spiritual advisers, and family members of the victim and perpetrator alike. . . . For that reason, every state barring Texas and Missouri has chosen to stay all executions scheduled to occur during the Covid-19 outbreak, and even Texas has stayed a few.

The bleak irony of hearing executions referred to as “a public health nightmare” aside, Grey Ellis’s summary underscores the cruelty at the heart of the administration’s decision: in its insistence on fast-tracking these executions before Trump’s term expires, it has not only upended decades of historical precedent and declining public support for the death penalty, but also jeopardized the health and safety of those hundreds of people involved.

Thus we end up with such disturbingly dystopian summaries as the one written by the Guardian’s Ed Pilkington: “Unlike death penalty states, the federal government insisted on proceeding with executions. As a result, there was an eruption of Covid-19 cases at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana which the DPIC [Death Penalty Information Center] report notes infected at least nine members of execution teams.” The phrase execution team as a job descriptor is chilling enough; add to this the lethality of a poorly managed pandemic, in which the administrators of death are themselves in danger of dying, and the vision of America at the end of 2020 becomes very dark indeed.

Barr’s unwavering support for the death penalty has set him at odds with the Catholic Church. Barr is a practicing Catholic of the “siege mentality” variety—the type of Catholic who feels he is constantly under attack by a phantom army of secularists and “elites.” “Secularists have been continually seeking to eliminate laws that reflect traditional moral norms,” he thundered during a 2019 address at the University of Notre Dame. Less than one year later, he seems to have no problem transgressing the “moral norm” spelled out so clearly in statements by the last three popes that the death penalty is incompatible with Catholic teaching.

There are those who will hedge and equivocate, saying that Barr, as an agent of the state, is only doing his part to uphold the law. This would be partly understandable if he demonstrated any remorse for what he has done; if, in one of his public statements, he even gestured toward something like compunction on behalf of those 10 men and women whose opportunity for conversion he has so far foreclosed. But he has not done anything of the sort. “I think the way to stop the death penalty is to overturn the death penalty,” he said breezily during a recent interview with the Associated Press. “But if you ask juries to impose it, and juries impose it, then it should go ahead.”

In September Barr received the Christifideles Laici Award at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast. The event is organized by a group of lay Catholics who are not officially connected with the church. Their decision to grant Barr the award “for his Fidelity to the Church, Exemplary Selfless and Steadfast Service in the Lord’s Vineyard” shows the selective approach many US Catholics take when it comes to the death penalty: as NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten pointed out, Barr ordered federal prisoners to be executed both the day before and the day after the breakfast. His prayer that morning is a private matter, but one hopes he found a moment to reflect with contrition on the power placed in his hands.

A study earlier this year showed that 57 percent of US Catholics are in favor of capital punishment, a scandalous number that shows there is a profound disconnect between church teaching and the laity’s understanding of the issue. To be sure, even those of us who steadfastly oppose the death penalty can admit that horrific crimes elicit strong emotional responses, and that the innate desire to see “justice served”—whatever that may be—is a very real part of the debate for many people. But justice does not preclude mercy, and it is not for us to determine who lives and dies or the limits of forgiveness and repentance. Speaking to Gjelten, Sister Helen Prejean put it succinctly: “People are worth more than the worst act of their life. Human beings can always change. That’s at the core of the Gospel of Life. That is what Jesus taught us.”

Michael Centore
Editor, Today’s American Catholic

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