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America After Trump: Is it Time to Ditch the Death Penalty?

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At 40-years old, Brandon Bernard was the youngest person to be executed by the US Federal Government in nearly 70 years. He waited on death row for over 20 years until he was executed on December 10 2020. 

Bernard was given the lethal injection for his involvement in the murder of Todd and Stacie Bailey in 1999. Brandon, accompanied by four other teenagers, robbed the couple and forced them into the boot of their car before they were shot by the then 19-year old Christopher Vialva – who was later executed for his role in the murder. Shortly after the couple were shot, Brandon set the car alight. At his trial, Bernard said that he had acted out of peer pressure and many have argued that he was the least culpable of the five involved. However, although the couple were “medically dead” before the fire, federal prosecutors testified that Stacie had soot in her airways and therefore had died of smoke inhalation. Thus, contradicting the argument that she was killed by the gunshot. The truth had been heavily debated right until the end of Brandon’s life.

The remaining three were juveniles and were therefore given prison sentences for their involvement. Bernard’s lawyers drew comparisons between the underage defendants and the ‘barely’ 18 Brandon. They consistently argued that he should have been given life in prison without parole, citing good behaviour in jail and his work with outreach programmes aimed at reducing crime. Public opinion had also shifted. Many urged the president to grant Bernard clemency – including the federal prosecutor and the surviving nine jurors from Bernard’s original trial. Kim Kardashian-West also got involved, writing numerous tweets about the case in the run-up to execution. 

But the demand to revise Bernard’s sentence was not universal. The families of Todd and Stacie Bagley both expressed gratitude to President Trump, thanking officials for getting justice for the couple and carrying out Bernard’s execution.

Racing through a string of executions

Since Bernard’s execution, four more executions were scheduled during the presidential transition period. The move is concerning, and came just weeks before Joe Biden – who has vowed to end the death penalty – took office. 

Prior to Trump’s presidency, only three federal executions had taken place since the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1988. Since 2003, there have been no federal executions at all. And while US states have continued to execute inmates, these are also trending down. 

But despite continued criticism from Democrats and human rights groups, the justice department has defended its decisions – highlighting a duty to carry forward these sentences for the victims and their families. Should the remaining executions go ahead, Trump will have overseen more federal executions than any president in more than a century, totalling 10. 

“We’d have to go back to 1896 to find another year where there were 10 or more executions”

Ngozi Ndulue, director of research at the non-partisan Death Penalty Information Centre.

The argument for abolishing the death penalty

Demand to abolish capital punishment has rapidly increased and the majority of states have either formally banned the practice or have not put any inmates to death in over a decade. Popular opinion too has shifted, significantly. A November 2019 Gallup poll found that 60% of Americans no longer favoured the death penalty over life in prison. 

Medical professionals also call for abolishment. A 2005 Lancet study revealed that in 43% of lethal injection cases, officials failed to give the prisoner an adequate amount of the drug to ensure unconsciousness thus prolonging the process. The lethal injection is advertised as quick and painless. But when Clayton Lockett was given the lethal injection in 2014, witnesses saw him groaning and convulsing for 43 minutes before he finally died. In the end it wasn’t the “lethal dose” that killed him, but a heart attack. And this isn’t a one-off – it is estimated that 3% of executions are mismanaged this way. Stories like this make executions sound more akin to torture and begs the question: how humane really is this process? Many now see capital punishment is an archaic tradition rooted in cruelty, not justice. Perhaps this is why most advanced countries have abolished the practice. 

Above all, there is argument for those wrongfully accused and imprisoned. Given the fallibility of human judgement, there is always a danger that an innocent person be put to death. Since 1973, more than 170 people who had been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in the US have been exonerated. And with scientific advances improving evidence collation every day, this number is only expected to continue rising. As long as the death penalty exists, innocent defendants will inevitably be convicted and sentenced to death and it is unlikely that the appeals process will catch all the mistakes. Although reforms have been begrudgingly implemented in some US states, they have not been sufficient to overcome human error. The remaining questions is – how many innocent lives are worth sacrificing to preserve this outdated punishment?

Hope for change is on the horizon

While President Trump has been a long-time, vocal advocate of the death penalty. The Biden team is opposed.

Biden’s support for the death penalty was consistent throughout his 30-plus-years in the Senate and he was even the force behind expanding the number of crimes subject to capital punishment in 1994. The 1994 crime law, which was an attempt to establish the Democratic party as “tough on crime” at a time when crime was high, is now frivolous. Now, Biden promises to push for legislation ending federal executions entirely, and encourages states to follow suit.

This criminal justice plan isn’t just a chance to appeal to the preferences of new age Democratic voters, but it’s also an opportunity for Biden to try to make up for the mistakes of his past. It will be an uphill battle for the president-elect, who is fighting a monster he helped create.

By Amani-Cane Elouazani

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