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Warren Leads Call for DOJ to Probe 'Frenzied and Unprecedented' Spree of Federal Executions Under Trump

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, despite public health concerns, the Trump administration ended a 17-year hiatus on federal executions.

Wearing a face mask to reduce the chance of transmission of the coronavirus, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) arrives at the U.S. Capitol for a vote May 18, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Wearing a face mask to reduce the chance of transmission of the coronavirus, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) arrives at the U.S. Capitol for a vote May 18, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Tuesday announced that she led seven of her congressional colleagues in calling for Michael E. Horowitz, inspector general of the U.S. Department of Justice, to investigate the "frenzied and unprecedented" spree of federal executions during the coronavirus pandemic and President Donald Trump's lame-duck period.

The Massachusetts Democrat was joined by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Their joint letter (pdf) to Horowitz notes that the administration ended a 17-year hiatus on federal executions in July.

In the midst of the public health crisis on July 14, the federal government killed Daniel Lewis Lee by lethal injection at a federal facility in Terre Haute, Indiana—just hours after the U.S. Supreme Court's right-wing majority issued an overnight decision allowing his execution to proceed despite concerns about a new single-drug protocol.

The lawmakers' letter explains:

Since his defeat at the polls in the November 2020 election, President Trump and political appointees at the Department of Justice (DOJ) have ramped up the pace of executions during the lame-duck period of his presidency, with executions of Orlando Hall on November 19, 2020, Brandon Bernard on December 10, 2020, and Alfred Bourgeois on December 11, 2020. Three more executions are scheduled mere days before the end of President Trump's term in January 2021, including Lisa Montgomery, who would be the first woman to be put to death by the federal government in 67 years.

As Common Dreams has previously reported, Montgomery has been described as "profoundly mentally ill" and "the most broken of the broken." In a joint statement earlier this month, a group of United Nations rights experts urged the U.S. government to halt her execution, noting that she "was the victim of an extreme level of physical and sexual abuse throughout her life against which the state never provided protection and for which it failed to offer remedies."

The senators' letter says that "this spree of executions marks a break with both modern history and decades-old practice. Prior to the Trump administration's revival of federal executions, the federal government had not executed a federal prisoner since 2003 and has only executed three people in the previous 50 years."

"And the executions that have and are scheduled to occur after November 3, 2020 are 'the first executions under a 'lame-duck' president in over 100 years,' and come despite the fact that 'President-elect Joe Biden has said he intends to end the use of capital punishment by the federal government while in office,'" the letter continues.

"The reversal of long-standing DOJ policies and protocols for federal executions raise numerous questions about the fairness and application of these policies and protocols by the Trump administration," the letter adds, "including the clear evidence that 'racial bias against defendants of color and in favor of white victims has a strong effect on who is capitally prosecuted, sentenced to death, and executed,' whether concerns about botched executions have been fully addressed, and whether 'employing death sentences during a pandemic is unsafe, particularly when it requires inmates, their families, and legal representatives, and teams of federal execution specialists to travel to the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, where executions are held."

The senators urge Horowitz to investigate the rationale for the reversal of long-standing policies and processes that prevented executions of federal inmates for nearly two decades, whether the application of the death penalty under Trump exhibits a pattern or practice of racial bias, if the administration has taken steps to ensure that executions are not botched, the costs of federal executions, and if the administration has taken adequate safety precautions to conduct executions during the pandemic.

Their demand for a probe comes after more than 40 Democratic lawmakers joined Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) in calling on Biden to immediately abolish the federal death penalty upon taking office on January 20. That letter came as the Death Penalty Information Center released a report showing that Trump has killed more people this year than all states that have carried out executions, combined.

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