Death Penalty

Attorney General Barr Orders the Federal Government To Start Executing Prisoners Again

After two decades of mercy, the Justice Department announces five men on federal death row will face lethal injections this winter.


U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced today that the federal government is going to get back into the execution business.

There are 62 people on death row in the federal Bureau of Prisons, but there have been no executions by the federal government since 2003. And there have only been three of these executions since the federal death penalty was reinstituted in 1988 (Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was one of them).

If Barr gets his way, that number is going to jump to eight by 2020. He announced today that the Justice Department plans to execute five men in December and January. Barr notes that these five men have exhausted their appeals. They have also committed crimes so severe that their pending executions might not stir up much outrage. Here are the five case summaries from the Justice Department:

  • Daniel Lewis Lee, a member of a white supremacist group, murdered a family of three, including an 8-year-old girl. After robbing and shooting the victims with a stun gun, Lee covered their heads with plastic bags, sealed the bags with duct tape, weighed down each victim with rocks, and threw the family of three into the Illinois bayou. On May 4, 1999, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas found Lee guilty of numerous offenses, including three counts of murder in aid of racketeering, and he was sentenced to death. Lee's execution is scheduled to occur on Dec. 9, 2019.
  • Lezmond Mitchell stabbed to death a 63-year-old grandmother and forced her nine-year-old granddaughter to sit beside her lifeless body for a 30- to 40-mile drive. Mitchell then slit the girl's throat twice, crushed her head with 20-pound rocks, and severed and buried both victims' heads and hands. On May 8, 2003, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona found Mitchell guilty of numerous offenses, including first-degree murder, felony murder, and carjacking resulting in murder, and he was sentenced to death. Mitchell's execution is scheduled to occur on Dec. 11, 2019.
  • Wesley Ira Purkey violently raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl, and then dismembered, burned, and dumped the young girl's body in a septic pond. He also was convicted in state court for using a claw hammer to bludgeon to death an 80-year-old woman who suffered from polio and walked with a cane. On Nov. 5, 2003, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri found Purkey guilty of kidnapping a child resulting in the child's death, and he was sentenced to death. Purkey's execution is scheduled to occur on Dec. 13, 2019.
  • Alfred Bourgeois physically and emotionally tortured, sexually molested, and then beat to death his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. On March 16, 2004, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas found Bourgeois guilty of multiple offenses, including murder, and he was sentenced to death. Bourgeois' execution is scheduled to occur on Jan. 13, 2020.
  • Dustin Lee Honken shot and killed five people: two men who planned to testify against him and a single, working mother and her 10-year-old and 6-year-old daughters. On Oct. 14, 2004, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa found Honken guilty of numerous offenses, including five counts of murder during the course of a continuing criminal enterprise, and he was sentenced to death. Honken's execution is scheduled to occur on Jan. 15, 2020.

It seems unlikely that Barr's decision will meet with much pushback aside from capital punishment abolitionists, who oppose state-sanctioned murder in all cases. Does it matter that, at Purkey's sentencing hearing, several people came forward to testify that he had been physically and sexually abused by his parents as a child? Probably not in the court of public opinion.

Over the last two decades, we've seen fewer executions on the state level. Annual executions have dropped from a high of 98 in 1999 to 25 in 2018, with all of those taking place in eight states. Since 2000, several states have eliminated the use of the death penalty entirely and four state governors have imposed moratoriums.

Americans are moving away from the use of the death penalty as a form of punishment. During this same period of execution decline, and during this drop of executions, violent crime has largely trended downward. Both numbers moving down in unison reflects the consensus among criminal justice researchers that the death penalty does not deter crime.

Barr's decision is not about public safety, but optics. When it comes to crime control, Pres. Trump favors dazzling displays of state violence. He has called for executing drug dealers and praised Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte for ordering the extrajudicial murder of thousands of people suspected of drug offenses. In 1989, he called for the execution of the Central Park Five, a group of teenagers wrongly convicted (and later exonerated) for a rape they did not commit. Of course, he supports murdering people convicted of murder.

There remains the question of how, exactly, the Justice Department is going to arrange these executions. Barr's press release indicates they'll be using pentobarbital for lethal injections, a drug that has faced significant criticism after it was used in botched executions in Oklahoma. Drug companies are increasingly resistant to providing chemicals that are going to be used to execute prisoners and some states have turned to secrecy to try to protect their supply sources from public view. BuzzFeed, which has done a significant amount of journalism surrounding the problems with lethal injection, has filed a lawsuit against the Justice Department and Bureau of Prisons in order to obtain records showing how the feds acquire and use lethal injection drugs.

Barr is reinstituting a form of irreversible punishment that the states are increasingly turning away from and that does not appear to have any impact on violent crime rates.

And we haven't even touched on the fact that death penalty convictions sometimes result in the defendants' exoneration. Just last year in California, Vincente Benavides, who served 25 years for allegedly sexually assaulting and murdering a child, was exonerated after experts determined that the child wasn't actually assaulted and that her injuries were likely the result of getting hit by a car. Benavides' release, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, was the 162nd exoneration of a person on death row since 1973.