Americans Are Divided On Federal Executions. Why Is The Trump Administration Reviving Them?

The execution chamber at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Florence is shown in a screen grab from a video provided by the Arizona Department of Corrections on March 4, 2015. Courtesy Arizona DOC-REUTERS
The execution chamber at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Florence is shown in a screen grab from a video provided by the Arizona Department of Corrections on March 4, 2015. Courtesy Arizona DOC-REUTERS

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BY LAURA SANTHANAM / PBS NEWSHOUR

The Trump administration’s decision to reinstate the federal death penalty, beginning with the executions of five men later this year, highlights a growing partisan divide over capital punishment at a time when its use has been decreasing. Polls show a strong majority of Republicans support the death penalty, while a majority of Democrats do not.

The expected executions, scheduled for this winter, would be the first time the federal government has executed anyone in 16 years — a time period that encompasses both Democratic and Republican administrations.

“The Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” Attorney General William Barr said about the move in a press release on Thursday.

But many see the use of the death penalty, at the federal level in particular, as arbitrary in terms of who ultimately faces that punishment — a sentiment that has affected its public support, said Robert Dunham, director for the Death Penalty Information Center.

The change also comes as the Justice Department shifts policy on what chemical it will use to kill the men, a topic of public and legal debate around the use of lethal injection drugs.

Over the last two decades, capital punishment has fallen overall, and at the state level especially, Dunham said. Nearly two dozen states have abolished the death penalty, and public opinion supporting executions has followed that slump.

“The national trend is [moving] away from capital punishment,” Dunham said.

Could public opinion and partisanship have played a role in Trump administration’s decision? The PBS NewsHour asked experts for their insights.

Who Is Being Executed?

The five men who will stand execution have all been convicted of killing children, among other victims. All were found to be guilty of federal crimes due to different specific details of their cases, such as where the murder took place, or if they had transported a minor over state lines.

“Under Administrations of both parties, the Department of Justice has sought the death penalty against the worst criminals, including these five murderers, each of whom was convicted by a jury of his peers after a full and fair proceeding,” Barr said in his statement.

The inmates include: Daniel Lewis Lee, a white supremacist with ties to the Inland Northwest and Spokane, who will be killed on Dec. 9, Lezmond Mitchell on Dec. 11, Wesley Ira Purkey on Dec. 13, Alfred Bourgeois on Jan. 13, 2020, and Dustin Lee Honken on Jan. 15, 2020. These men have run out of appeals to their death sentences, according to the Justice Department, and all five will be put to death at the same prison, the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, a press release noted.

To execute them, the Justice Department have proposed using a single, acutely toxic barbiturate used to euthanize animals — pentobarbital. That marks a departure from the three-chemical protocol used in previous executions but an option increasingly adopted amid continued debate around the drugs used in lethal injections. Since 2010, the Justice Department said 14 states have used pentobarbital in more than 200 executions. In 2018, drug companies distanced themselves from executions and refused to sell their product to be used for lethal injections.