“The death penalty is beyond redemption. It is unfair and unfixable, and it turns states into killers in the name of vengeance against killers,” the LA Times writes in a recent editorial, “Death penalty’s retreat is excruciatingly slow.” The editorial board cites the courage of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, who commuted the sentences of the 17 men on death row in December, “the most expansive instance of death penalty clemency since Illinois Gov. George Ryan commuted the sentences of all of his state’s 167 death row inmates in 2003,” and recognizes California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s bold decision to impose a moratorium on executions in 2019, but points out former Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak’s futile last-minute attempt before leaving office to commute the sentences of everyone on his state’s death row, as “too little, too late.” Because it’s “politically risky” to commute sentences or grant clemency, “the uncivilized American institution that is the death penalty lingers.”
One of the 13 people killed by former President Trump and his Attorney General Bill Barr in their six-month killing spree of individuals on federal death row in 2020, was Brandon Bernard. As Rolling Stone reports, “He was the ninth of 13 people executed in the final six months of the Trump administration — more federal executions than in the previous ten administrations combined. Of the 13, six were put to death after Trump lost the election, his Justice Department accelerating the schedule to ensure they would die before the incoming administration could intercede. Before Trump, there had been only three federal executions since 1963; in January 2021, Trump oversaw three executions during a single four-day stretch.” Barr’s zeal for the executions and Trump’s total indifference to the brutality is stark and horrifyingly depicted in the article’s focus on Bernard’s particular case.
In 2005, in Roper v. Simmons, the US Supreme Court ruled that no one under the age of 18 at the time of their crime could be sentenced to death. In August, the American Psychological Association called on the courts, Congress, and state legislatures to ban the death penalty for people younger than 21 “based on scientific research indicating that adolescent brains continue to develop well beyond age 18.” And, in a recent article, “Roper and Race: the Nature and Effects of Death Penalty Exclusions,” in the Journal of Pediatric Neuropsychology, Craig Haney, Frank R. Baumgartner, and Karen Steele argue there is another important, less-discussed reason “Roper’s logic can and should be extended to 18- to 20-year-olds. “A much higher percentage of persons in the late adolescent class who were sentenced to death in the post-Roper era were non-White, suggesting that their age-based exclusion would help to remedy this problematic pattern.”
This month marks the 20th anniversary of Illinois then-Gov. George Ryan’s commutation of the sentences of every individual on death row to life in prison. “Faced with a capital punishment system that proved to have all of the accuracy of a coin flip, Ryan courageously halted executions,” Dennis Culloton, his speechwriter and press secretary at the time, writes in a Chicago Tribune op-ed, but “20 years after George Ryan’s clearing of death row, Illinois still has a lot to learn.” The city’s current “tough on crime” stance and its attendant “reactionary policymaking” has created an atmosphere of distrust between the police and residents, with little to no improvement in public safety, he argues. Twenty years after Ryan’s courageous act, “It’s time to rebuild the machinery of justice.”
The last person executed by the military was U.S. Army Private John A. Bennett in April 1961 for rape and attempted murder. There are now four men on military death row in Fort Leavenworth prison in Kansas. In a post on the National Institute of Military Justice blog, CAAFlog, Dwight Sullivan provides details of the crimes each of the men was convicted of and the status of their cases.