CHICAGO – As Donald Trump’s presidency winds down, his administration is ratcheting up the pace of federal executions despite a surge of coronavirus cases in prisons, announcing plans for five starting Thursday and concluding just days before the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.
If the five go off as planned, it will make 13 executions since July when the Republican administration resumed putting inmates to death after a 17-year hiatus and will cement Trump's legacy as the most prolific execution president in over 130 years. He'll leave office having executed about a quarter of all federal death-row prisoners, despite waning support for capital punishment among both Democrats and Republicans.
In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Attorney General William Barr defended the extension of executions into the post-election period, saying he’ll likely schedule more before he departs the Justice Department. A Biden administration, he said, should keep it up.
“I think the way to stop the death penalty is to repeal the death penalty," Barr said. “But if you ask juries to impose and juries impose it, then it should be carried out.”
The plan breaks a tradition of lame-duck presidents deferring to incoming presidents on policy about which they differ so starkly, said Robert Dunham, director of the non-partisan Death Penalty Information Center. Biden, a Democrat, is a death penalty foe, and his spokesman told the AP that he'd work to end the death penalty when he is in office.
“It’s hard to understand why anybody at this stage of a presidency feels compelled to kill this many people … especially when the American public voted for someone else to replace you and that person has said he opposes the death penalty,” Dunham said. “This is a complete historical aberration.”
Not since the waning days of Grover Cleveland’s presidency in the late 1800s has the U.S. government executed federal inmates during a presidential transition, Dunham said. Cleveland’s was also the last presidency during which the number of civilians executed federally was in the double digits in a year, with 14 executed in 1896.
Anti-death penalty groups want Biden to lobby harder for a halt to the flurry of pre-inaugural executions, though Biden can't do much to stop them, especially considering Trump won't even concede he lost the election and is spreading baseless claims of voting fraud.