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Death Sentences, Executions Down to Historic Lows Despite Return of Federal Executions

Nicole Rojas
Dec 16, 2020 - 1:30

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Executions and death sentences in the United States fell to historic lows despite the federal government resuming executions of people on federal death row, a new report by The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) reveals. 

The report, titled “The Death Penalty in 2020:Year End Report,” said that the decline in death sentences and state executions “was unquestionably a by-product of the pandemic,” but noted that before the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. was on pace for the sixth straight year of near-record low sentences and executions. 

Seventeen people were executed in 2020, a decline from the 22 executed in 2019. Every single person executed this year was 21 years old or younger at the time of their crimes or had serious impairments such as mental illness, developmental brain damage, chronic serious childhood trauma, neglect, and/or abuse. 

According to DPIC, just seven states imposed death sentences this year: Arizona, California, Florida, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas. 

In 2020, Colorado became the 22nd state to abolish the death penalty and progressive prosecutors who pledged to never use the death penalty or to use it sparingly were elected across the country. Only five states –– Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas –– performed executions in 2020, the report found. 

In July, states halted executions altogether due to public health concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

However, 2020 was also the year the Trump administration resumed federal executions after a 17-year hiatus. Since July, the federal government has executed 10 people. In the last week alone, Trump’s administration executed 40-year-old Brandon Bernard and 56-year-old Alfred Bourgeois

In a statement to The North Star, DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham said that more states and counties moved to end or reduce death-penalty usage, fewer new death sentences were imposed and states carried out fewer executions than at any time in the last 37 years. 

“What was happening in the rest of the country showed that the administration’s policies were not just out of step with the historical practices of previous presidents, they were also completely out of step with today’s state practices,” Dunham said. 

Despite the decline in executions, DPIC’s report stated that racial disparities in this year’s executions remain consistent with decades-long trends. Nearly half of the defendants executed were people of color and 76 percent of the executions were for the deaths of white victims. 

Ngozi Ndulue, DPIC’s Senior Director of Research and Special Projects, said, “Racism has always infected the use of the death penalty and this year is no exception. The death penalty –– as the most severe punishment –– must be part of the efforts to address racism in the criminal legal system as a whole.” 

Trump Administration’s Execution Plans

The Trump administration not only resumed federal executions in July, but also plans to conduct at least three more executions in the final weeks of President Donald Trump being in office. Despite loud calls for clemency, the Trump administration executed Brandon Bernard on Dec. 10 and Alfred Bourgeois the following day. 

The federal government has scheduled the state-sanctioned killings of two Black men and one white woman in January. They are Corey Johnson, Dustin Higgs and Lisa Montgomery. 

Corey Johnson, 52, was a member of the Newtowne gang in Richmond, Virginia, that was responsible for 10 deaths in a 45-day period in 1992, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The federal government scheduled Johnson’s execution for Jan. 14, but his attorneys have asked the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia to stop the execution and set a hearing allowing them to provide evidence establishing Johnson’s intellectual disability. 

The attorneys claim that three experts have concluded that there is strong evidence that their client is intellectually disabled. In their request, the attorneys cite the Federal Death Penalty Act, which prevents the execution of someone with an intellectual disability. 

Dustin Higgs is the last person scheduled to be executed by the Trump administration before the inauguration of President-elect, and death-penalty opponent, Joe Biden. Although convicted of killing three young women in 1996, witnesses –– including co-defendant Willis Haynes –– maintain Higgs did not kill anyone, The Daily Beast reported. No one argues that Haynes was the shooter, but after failing to secure a death penalty for him, the government claimed Higgs forced Haynes to kill the women. 

There is a petition on Change.org that is pleading to spare Higgs’ life. 

Lisa Montgomery, who was convicted of killing a pregnant mother to kidnap her baby, is the only woman scheduled for execution under the Trump administration. She was originally scheduled to be executed on Dec. 8, but it was postponed after her public defender, Kelley Henry, and her co-counsel contracted COVID-19, St. Louis Public Radio reported. 

Montgomery’s attorneys are fighting to stop her execution due to mounting evidence of mental illness. If executed, Montgomery will be the first woman executed by the federal government since 1953. 

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a senior writer for The North Star. She has published in various publications, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored the Americas, Asia, Australia and Europe.

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