Since midsummer of this awful year, the Trump administration has executed 10 people without much public notice. What little reporting this story has received has been drowned out by the election, the pandemic, and the torrent of lies and conspiracy theories still flowing from a crippled White House. 


Attorney General William Barr cleared the way in July 2019, when he announced that the federal government would resume executions after a lapse of 17 years. A year of legal wrangling ensued but ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 on July 14, 2020 that Daniel Lewis Lee could be executed. His execution, scheduled for later that day, was opposed by the murder victims’ family, the prosecutor, and the judge. Lee and his co-defendant, Chevie Kehoe were convicted of the murder of Nancy Mueller, her husband William Mueller and their 8 year old daughter, Sarah Powell. Mueller’s family, the prosecutor, and the judge who tried the case in Arkansas felt that executing Lee would be a miscarriage of justice since his more culpable co-defendant Kehoe was serving a life sentence instead. So they petitioned for clemency for Lee. Clemency was denied. 


Lee’s execution opened the floodgates. In rapid succession over the next five months, the government executed nine more prisoners. More startling is the fact that the federal government executed more people than all the states combined in 2020. The score: Government 10, States 8. 


Now, the government is trying to rush through three more executions before Trump leaves office on Jan. 20. Among the three condemned prisoners is a woman, Lisa Montgomery. She was a victim of horrific abuse throughout her childhood and is severely mentally ill. And, she was inadequately represented during the sentencing phase of her trial. You can read about her case by Googling “Lisa Montgomery Execution.” I strongly recommend the op ed piece by Rachel Snyder from December 18th, to which, for some reason, I was unable to paste the link. 



Clearly, Trump’s Justice Department is hurrying to execute these prisoners before his term ends, knowing full well that the Biden administration won’t do it. Normally, the government stops executions after a president becomes a lame duck in order to let the incoming administration make the decision. Indeed, no federal prisoner has been executed under a lame-duck president since 1889, when Grover Cleveland was serving out his last days in the White House. Yet the Trump administration aims to do Cleveland five better by executing an even half dozen between his defeat at the polls and his hoped for exit on January 20 2021.


It probably goes without saying that I am against the death penalty. I pretty much agree with what my mother once told me — you can’t call yourself a Christian and support the death penalty. 


Anyone who wants to dismiss us as two old liberal hacks should consider what Pope Francis said:


The death penalty is not necessary to protect society.  It is not necessary to hold people accountable for grave crimes.  The decision not to execute someone, even someone who has done something terrible, is not ‘soft on crime’; rather, it is strong on the dignity of life. 


The Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops took a similar view:


The Trump administration’s embrace of the death penalty is at odds with the stand taken by these and other religious leaders, and many state and foreign governments that have ended executions. My home state of Louisiana hasn’t executed anyone in 14 years. The same is true for Utah. Altogether, 22 states have abolished the death penalty including several with reputations for being tough on crime. Abroad, the death penalty exists only in the Arab world, China and North Korea. By any measure the death penalty is on the wane. 


But our own government is hell bent on killing as many death-row prisoners as possible by Inauguration Day. This fact, amply documented in articles cited below, isn’t newsworthy enough to make headlines. If one juxtaposes the pardoning of the Blackwater killers with the rush to execute the federal prisoners facing the death penalty, one is confronted with the appalling amorality at the very top of our  government. Of course, the Blackwater mercenaries were white and worked for the brother of the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. By contrast, the overwhelming majority of death-row inmates are poor, dark-skinned, mentally ill and/or “suffered from relentless trauma in their developmental years.” That description is part of a letter signed by hundreds of judges, prosecutors, police and  corrections officials, plus relatives of homicide victims, and sent to Trump and Barr when federal executions resumed.


I’m writing on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, December 28th, when many Christians recall the slaughter of male children under 2 years old in the region of Bethlehem at the hand of King Herod. After the Wise Men visited him and told him of Jesus’ birth, Herod feared the child king might attract a following and supplant him, so he ordered the killings.


What motivation does Donald Trump have for ordering death-row prisoners to be executed before January 20th? Will it appeal to his base?  Will it make him seem more manly? Will law-and-order politicians who constantly remind us that we live in “the greatest country on earth” praise Trump in order to curry favor with like-minded voters? 


I hope you will join me in praying that the killing spree doesn’t continue over the next 3 weeks that separate us from a much-hoped-for return to some level of morality and civility.


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About Buck Close

Deacon Buck Close serves on the staff of the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Newport, RI. He was born in South Carolina, graduated from Tulane University in 1972 with a BA in Economics and Latin American Studies.

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