Acting US AG Rosen Urged to Postpone Three Executions Planned for This Week Due to Pandemic

College students and community members wearing face masks hold placards while gathering in Bloomington, Indiana to protest against the death penalty and a wave of executions at the Terre Haute federal prison during the final months of President Donald Trump's administration. (Photo: Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Acting US AG Rosen Urged to Postpone Three Executions Planned for This Week Due to Pandemic

The outgoing Trump administration has killed 10 death row inmates since resuming federal executions after a 17-year hiatus.

Amid the raging coronavirus pandemic and demands for President Donald Trump's removal from office for inciting an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, former corrections officers on Monday urged acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen to postpone three executions planned for this week "out of concern for the safety of correction staff, administrators, and prisoners in Indiana facilities, and our communities."

"At a time when corrections staff in Indiana are facing incredible pressure and stress from the dangers of working during the pandemic, holding these executions this week places an unnecessary threat to their safety. Community Covid-19 levels are already exceptionally high in Indiana, with several counties in crisis," says a letter to Rosen.

"A short postponement could literally save hundreds of lives," the letter adds, noting that vaccinations have begun at the Federal Correctional Institution, Terre Haute, the site of the executions. "We ask that you prioritize the health and safety of correction staff and postpone these executions until staff have all been offered vaccines."

Published online by the ACLU, the letter was signed by three senior-ranking former officials from the Indiana Department of Correction--Doris Parlette, superintendent; Karin Thornburg, assistant superintendent; and William Kersey, corrections program director--as well as James Cahill, retired Indiana state parole supervisor.

Since resuming federal executions last summer after a 17-year hiatus and despite concerns about the drug protocol, the Trump administration has killed 10 inmates. A postponement could save the lives of Lisa Montgomery, Corey Johnson, and Dustin Higgs; their executions are scheduled for Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, respectively.

Democrats have a majority in the U.S. House and, thanks to a pair of runoff wins in Georgia, will soon take control of the Senate. Two lawmakers on Monday unveiled new legislation to abolish the federal death penalty and dozens of Democrats are calling on President-elect Joe Biden to immediately do so when he takes office January 20.

As a candidate, Biden said that the "because we cannot ensure we get death penalty cases right every time," he would work to pass a bill eliminating it "at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government's example." He suggested death row inmates should "instead serve life sentences without probation or parole."

In a statement announcing the corrections officials' letter, Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU's Capital Punishment Project, said:

The federal government's decision to rush to kill three more people in the week before President-elect Biden takes office is unforgivably reckless. The data shows that the federal executions these past six months led to preventable spikes in Covid-19 for people incarcerated at Terre Haute prison, prison staff, and in the surrounding community. But of course, the spread doesn't stop there.

Execution team members travel from around the country to participate in these executions. They do not quarantine when they arrive in Indiana, and they are not required to get tested when they return home. These executions are likely spreading Covid-19 around the country, not just in Indiana. If acting Attorney General Rosen cares at all about the health of federal prison staff, their families, and communities, he will not go through with these unnecessary executions at this precarious moment.

Rosen has been acting as attorney general since William Barr's resignation last month. In July 2019, Barr announced the federal government would resume federal capital punishment.

The Trump administration's "frenzied and unprecedented" spree of federal executions during the pandemic--which has prompted lawmakers to demand an investigation by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Justice--is expected to continue without intervention by Rosen, Trump, or the right-wing U.S. Supreme Court.

In the Trump administration's determination to kill Montgomery, Johnson, and Higgs, "Justice Department officials scheduled executions in defiance of court orders, flouted pandemic safety measures and lied about it, and demanded that judges yield to the administration's self-imposed deadline of January 20," ProPublicareported Monday.

"Their legal rationale for why they cannot wait appears to rest in part on the availability of the private contractors whom the government hired to carry out the executions," ProPublica explained. "Justice Department lawyers argued in court in the past several weeks that the inconvenience of rescheduling these private contractors would 'irreparably harm' the government more than the prisoners would be irreparably harmed by dying."

As of late Monday, over 275,000 people had signed a MoveOn petition urging Trump to "extend mercy to Lisa Montgomery, a victim of multiple rapes, child sex trafficking, and domestic violence." Her execution was scheduled for this week in spite of a court-ordered halt that "was meant to give Montgomery more time to work on her case because her lawyers caught Covid-19 while visiting her in prison." That's according to ProPublica, which noted both Johnson and Higgs also tested positive for the virus.

New York Times opinion writer Elizabeth Bruenig on Monday focused on Johnson. "The Supreme Court declared it was unconstitutional to execute intellectually disabled people," she wrote. "On Thursday, we're set to do it anyway."

Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun and anti-death penalty activist, on Monday tied all three planned executions to a broader trend of the Trump presidency.

"President Trump's overall approach to the way he tries to hold power is to use violence," Prejean told WBUR. "He upholds white supremacy groups, people who use violence. He encouraged the group to storm the Capitol. And executions are just part of his whole way of doing things."

Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), in a joint interview with NPR on Monday, unveiled legislation to end federal capital punishment.

"There are three lives that hang in the balance this week alone," said Pressley, who introduced similar legislation during the last congressional session. "And this is why we reintroduced this bill this week and are urging Congress to act immediately to pass it. State sanctioned murder is not justice."

Pressley also said she is in an "active conversation" with the incoming administration and is "very optimistic" about the bill's chances. After Biden's victory, the congresswoman led dozens of lawmakers in a letter urging the president-elect to also use executive action to immediately outlaw the federal death penalty.

"I'm calling on him to use that full authority with the stroke of a pen to halt all federal executions and save lives," she said. "He should also require the Department of Justice to no longer seek the death penalty for future cases, and permanently dismantle the terror facility where those federal executions take place."

This article has been updated to clarify that the U.S. government resumed federal executions in 2020 following an announcement the previous year.

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