The “machinery of death” will shift into high gear in the next few months if the Department of Justice gets its way.
On Monday, Attorney General William Barr announced that the Department of Justice will propose legislation to speed up death penalty trials for defendants accused of mass murder, or the killing of a law enforcement officer. “There will be a strict timetable for judicial proceedings that will allow the imposition of the death sentence without undue delay. Punishment must be swift and certain,” Barr told a law enforcement conference in New Orleans, according to CNN.
This announcement came on the heels of Barr’s disclosure late last month that DOJ plans to resume federal executions after a 16-year hiatus. The AG says the government will execute five men over a five-week period beginning December 9 and ending January 15. The Federal Bureau of Prisons plans to use a single drug, pentobarbital, replacing the three-drug procedure it has previously used.
Both announcements were met with surprise and dismay.
Reason responded to the call for a speeded up death penalty process by noting that, “Not only should the wrongfully convicted have a right to appeal, but the slower-paced process already has a slew of institutional problems that could only be exacerbated with less review . . . . An expedited death penalty reduces the chances that an innocent prisoner will be exonerated in time.”
The subhead to the Reason article was “Politicians never hesitate to exploit a tragedy,” and that is exactly what this president is doing. He is exploiting a tragedy. Statistics prove the death penalty will not curtail the scourge of mass killings. Texas and Ohio actively engage in the practice of the death penalty. And, in Texas and Ohio this weekend, the death penalty did nothing to deter the bloodshed.
Earlier this month, USA Today published an illustration demonstrating the increase in mass killings in the United State since 1966. What the graphic shows – and what few death penalty supporters acknowledge – is that all shootings of 10 or more, except for the 26 killed at Sandy Hook, occurred in states which practice the death penalty.
The announcement that the state is planning to begin executing federal prisoners again brought an even more outraged response.
“As a lifelong conservative, I believe this is a step in the wrong direction. The problems that have plagued the death penalty at the state level — the risk of executing the innocent, arbitrariness and bias, high costs, a lack of deterrence and the failure to deliver ‘closure’ to victims’ families — exist at the federal level too,” wrote Wyoming Rep. Jared Olsen (Rep) in the New York Times.
And in the Washington Post, Allen L. Ault, who has served as a commissioner in several state departments of correction, said of the resumption of the federal death penalty, “Psychologists have described the impact of executions on correctional staff as similar to that suffered by battlefield veterans. But in my military experience, there was one major difference: The enemy was an anonymous, armed combatant who was threatening my life. In an execution, the condemned prisoner is a known human being who is totally defenseless when brought into the death chamber.” So, imagine that experience repeated five times over a period of just over five weeks. And imagine a team that hasn’t executed anyone in 16 years, if ever, doing it over and over again.
At a time like this, Bryan Stevenson’s always-relevant question is more pertinent and urgent than ever: “The question of the death penalty is not, ‘Do people deserve to die for the crimes they commit?’ I think the threshold question is, ‘Do we deserve to kill?’ “