22 November 2019 :
Hundreds of former state and federal judges, prosecutors, law enforcement and corrections officials, and family members of homicide victims have signed on to a series of letters urging the federal government to halt the five federal executions scheduled for December 2019 and January 2020.
In four separate letters addressed to President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr, 175 family members of murder victims, 65 former state and federal judges, 59 current and former state and federal prosecutors and law enforcement officials, and 26 former correctional professionals offered diverse perspectives on why the scheduled executions should not take place. Family members of murder victims were the largest group to urge the administration to call off the executions. When Attorney General Barr announced on July 25 that the federal government would resume executions after a 16-year hiatus, he attempted to justify that decision as being a service to victims’ families. Barr said at the time, “we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.” The 175 victims’ family members disagreed. Calling for an end to capital punishment, they wrote: “The death penalty does not prevent violence. It does not solve crime. It does not provide services for families like ours. It does not help solve the over 250,000 homicide cold cases in the United States. It exacerbates the trauma of losing a loved one and creates yet another grieving family. It also wastes many millions of dollars that could be better invested in programs that actually reduce crime and violence and that address the needs of families like ours.” The other groups did not advocate death-penalty abolition, but criticized systemic flaws in the federal death penalty as currently administered and said the executions should be halted. The letter from federal and state judges argued that “there are too many problems with the federal death penalty system, and too many unanswered questions about the government’s newly announced execution procedure, to allow executions to proceed.” The judges wrote that, from their experience on the bench, “racial bias, geographic disparities, and deficient counsel played outsized roles in the decisions to seek and impose the death penalty.” The letter from law enforcement officials and prosecutors—signed by police chiefs, former state attorneys general, former federal prosecutors, and current and former district attorneys—said “the federal death penalty system is marked by many of the same troubling flaws found in the state death penalty systems,” listing the same concerns as the judges, as well as the “alarming frequency” of wrongful convictions. The corrections officials spoke directly to the effect of executions on prison personnel who must carry them out. “The psychological toll of carrying out a death sentence is well-documented,” they wrote. “Those of us who have participated in executions have experienced the trauma first-hand, while others of us have seen the toll it has taken on colleagues. We believe the federal government is compounding the risk to corrections staff by scheduling these executions so close together.” Their letter emphasized the risk presented by the new protocol, the rushed timeline of executions, and staffing shortages in the federal Bureau of Prisons. “Our colleagues at the Bureau are professionals, but it is incumbent on leaders to avoid putting public servants in positions where they face a real risk of harm or error. We hope you will reconsider the scheduled executions to ensure the safety and wellbeing of federal corrections officers.” The U.S. government has scheduled five executions to take place over a five-week period between December 9, 2019 and January 15, 2020, including three that were set for the five-day period from December 9–December 13. In a separate request, Earlene Peterson has asked President Trump to commute the death sentence of Daniel Lewis Lee, who is scheduled to be executed December 9 for the murders of Peterson’s daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter. A federal court has stayed the December 11 execution of Lezmond Mitchell. The victims’ family letter included individuals in high-profile cases—such as Bud Welch, whose daughter, Julie, was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing, and several family members of people killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks—as well as numerous family members of victims in cases in which prosecutors did not seek the death penalty or in which the murder remains unsolved. The letter emphasizes that “the current system divides murder victims’ families by cherry-picking cases to receive the disproportionate attention and resources of a capital trial.” This, it says, “sends the hurtful message that some murders are worse than others and some victims matter more than others, even while most of us never receive the services we need in the wake of violence.” Both the judges and the prosecutors urged the Attorney General to undertake a systemic review of the federal death penalty to redress systemic arbitrariness in its implementation. The judges wrote, “just as only 2% of America’s counties produce a majority of state death sentences, we see the same geographic concentration in the federal system. Only three states – Texas, Missouri, and Virginia – account for nearly half of all current federal death sentences. And as America grapples with a reckoning on racial injustice, we see that people of color make up 55% of those on federal death row.” They called the racial disparity “especially stark in the states with the most federal death sentences.” In addition to its racial disparities, the judges wrote that, “overwhelmingly,” those sentenced to death in the federal system “are poor, suffer from mental illness, and/or were subjected to relentless trauma in their developmental years. In other words, the federal death penalty is not imposed on ‘the worst of the worst.’ Instead, just as in the states, it is applied in a biased manner against the most vulnerable populations.” The prosecutors raised similar concerns and also questioned the decision to divert limited federal law enforcement resources to costly capital prosecutions and appeals. “Death penalty cases are extremely expensive,” they wrote, “requiring many more human and financial resources than cases where the death penalty is not pursued. There are reasonable questions about whether these resources could be better used on other public safety priorities, such as ensuring that law enforcement officers throughout the country have access to needed equipment and technology, and expanding units devoted to resolving cold cases.” The prosecutors said they “are deeply concerned that the federal government plans to proceed with executions despite serious questions about the fairness and reliability of the system that condemned” the prisoners slated to die. They wrote, “we urge you to prevent this injustice by withdrawing the scheduled execution dates, and ordering that no federal executions occur until a comprehensive review of the system can be completed.”