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.

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  1. Question for the Anti-Death Penalty folks:

    Would you be ok if the Death Penalty remained on the books, and various gruesome murderer got that sentence, but it was never carried out and they ended up with de facto life imprisonment?

    As long as there’s still a Death Penalty the opponents can counter with “Don’t kill him. Lock him up forever and let him contemplate his crimes.” But if/when the DP is I suspect the “reformers” will move on to attacking Life in Prison.

    Actually they’re already moving in that direction: See Cory Booker’s plan to create a “rebuttable” presumption that UNABomber should be freed.

    1. “the “reformers” will move on to attacking Life in Prison.”

      Yes, many anti-DP people currently take this stance. It’s possible that there is no additional deterrent effect from the death penalty vs. life imprisonment, but there is obviously a deterring effect from not allowing psychopaths on the street.

    2. But that slippery slope argument cuts both ways.

      You fear that if the DP were abolished, then the reformers would travel down the slippery slope and try to get life in prison abolished next, I suppose.

      But I, as someone who opposes the death penalty, might fear that if I DON’T demand that the DP is abolished, then the DP hardliners will travel down the slippery slope in the other direction, and insist that it be expanded to cover even more crimes.

      How about, instead of worrying about slippery slopes, that we just discuss the current issue on its own merits?

      If you demand that the DP stay on the books, for fear that “life in prison” will be abolished next, then why should I, as someone who opposes DP, tolerate the DP stay on the books,

      1. Oops, ignore that last paragraph.

        1. Oops, ignore all the paragraphs.

          Fixed it for you jeffrey.

    3. Question for the pro-death-penalty folks: what is the maximum number of innocent people being executed by the state that would be acceptable to you? There was an article here the other day about cops and prosecutors having tunnel vision and railroading the first person they suspect of a crime. There are so many cases where they did this in a murder case and the person in eventually, after years in prison, is exonerated after a very lengthy and expensive appeals process.

      1. So you’re good with giving the death penalty to UNABomber? Because I’m pretty sure he’s not a victim of police tunnel vision or a coerced confession.

        1. Sure. And if we could set up a system that made sure that only people like him were executed, I’d have no problem with it. But that’s not the system we have today, so I’d rather keep a piece of shit like him alive than execute an innocent person.

        2. How sure is pretty sure? But anyway, I don’t feel comfortable with the state killing anyone just because of the nature of that type of organization. In a case like the Unabomber, where everyone is 99.999% certain that Ted Kaszinski is the one that did it, then I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. But the existence of the death penalty still leaves the door open to innocent people being railroaded into execution.

          1. At this point, with our current level of forensic science I am not too concerned about executing the wrong person. Especially when it takes around fifteen years to actually get around to killing them.

            1. You have a lot more faith in the competence and integrity of the government lawyers running the crime labs than I do.

    4. As one anti-DP person, yeah I’m completely okay with life imprisonment whether de facto or as sentenced. Some people should never again see the light of day.

      Nor is my argument against the death penalty that it is cruel. For many, death would be a mercy compared to life in prison living with the consequences of their actions.

      My sole argument against the death penalty is that it is irreversible. We all err. That includes police, judges and juries. If an innocent man is serving a life sentence, there’s at least a chance that a wrong decision will be corrected, he’ll be released and society can throw some money at him to compensate for the lost year. Once he’s been executed, however, there is no way to even pretend to make the wrong decision right.

      Okay, actually I do have a second argument against – the death penalty is ineffective. Statistical studies show that it has no deterrent effect on other criminals. The only person “deterred” is the criminal under sentence – and a life sentence in jail achieves the same result.

      1. in para 3, “year” should be “years”.

        Can we please have an edit function?

        1. No, we may NOT have an edit function. If we were getting one, it would have happened when they revamped the site. So we are all SOL.

      2. I am Libertarian on most issues, but not when it comes to the DP. I think violent people should be put to death because why should tax payers have to pay to keep them in prison for life?

        I don’t think of it as a deterrent, I just think of it has putting an end to dangerous people. People do escape prisons…

    5. I don’t like the death penalty because it can be used to extort confessions.

      I don’t like it because government makes mistakes. Sometimes intentionally.

      I don’t like it because it removes the chance for an individual to reconcile with God.

      Life imprisonment suits the goal of protecting the public from dangerous people.

  2. I have no problem seeing the five examples listed above being put to sleep.
    Some people just should be using our oxygen and wasting our tax dollars so they can eat, sleep, have medical care at our expense and even get a college degree.
    Fuck that.
    Some animals are just too sick to be redeemed.

    1. guaranteed they spent substantially more money prosecuting these five death penalty cases than they would if they just shot for life in jail and locked them up forever. So the economic argument doesn’t really hold water. Just like the deterrence argument doesn’t hold water. This is why pro-DP folks usually make a “deservingness” (i.e., moral claim)…because you can’t actually test that argument with empirical data to see if it is supported. See the ravings of Ms. Jett above and below.

  3. The death penalty isn’t about deterring crime it’s about justice.

    1. And we haven’t even touched on the fact that death penalty convictions sometimes result in the defendants’ exoneration.

      Good thing justice came before justice.

    2. There’s no such thing as justice.
      Just winners and losers.

  4. “Of course, he supports murdering people convicted of murder.”

    For pragmatic reasons, I support abolishing capital punishment. But it is not murder and pretending that people who favor retaining capital punishment favor murdering people is likely to be counterproductive.

    1. Not at all?

  5. “They have also committed crimes so severe that their pending executions might not stir up much outrage.”

    You’re right. I oppose the death penalty and I’m not outraged in the least that these assholes are going to die. Adios.

  6. I’m pretty much a “time and scene of the crime, preferably at the hands of the intended victim” kind of guy.

    But if we’re going to have lethal injection, why not use all that heroin in the evidence locker instead of trying to source controversial drugs?

    1. That might have unintended consequences….

  7. 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.

    I don’t normally get preachy about the Oxford comma, but it would really be helpful here

  8. The death penalty is not about punishment.
    The death penalty is not about deterrence.
    The death penalty is the way society says “this behavior is so reprehensible the only way we can show our disgust is to kill the person who did it.”. (which is why I oppose murder convictions for get away drivers; they didn’t do it.)
    Most of the arguments against the death penalty are actually arguments about the due process leading up to the conviction. If perjury were punishable by the maximum penalty of the law perjured about, and the foolish concept of cops and prosecutors having qualified immunity were eliminated, how many of the false convictions would there be?

  9. big Betsy Ross flags behind the lethal injection tables.

  10. Conservative: (1) A stale-thinking, often poorly educated and superstitious, reliably bigoted person who believes government is inept, corrupt, untrustworthy, and too powerful — until that government wishes to kill someone, at which point the government is claimed to be effective, well-meaning, infallible, righteous, and properly exercising absolute power with prejudice. (2) A casualty of the culture war; one who has watched America progress against his efforts and wishes throughout his lifetime.

    1. RAK: (1) The most bigoted commenter in the thread.

      1. A bigger bigot there is not.

    2. Do you think remarks like this convince anyone of anything, except that the person making the remark is not a nice person and has little to contribute to the conversation?

  11. My personal opinion about DP is that the state should only do the trial/appeals stuff with a lot of care. More care than now frankly. Then if the person is still deemed guilty at the end of that, they should be declared ‘outside the protection of the law’ (the original meaning of the word outlaw) and no action against them will be punishable by the law. In medieval times, ‘outlaws’ had a very short life expectancy since even if the victim’s family chose not to take revenge someone else would. Of course I doubt that really works anymore. If it ever did. But it sounds like a more limited acceptable role for the state

    At any rate – what I don’t understand about any of these cases is why were they federal? these all seem more like state crimes. Am I missing something?

    1. Based on the reporting;
      Daniel Lewis Lee – racketeering
      Lezmond Mitchell – probably kidnapping of the kid
      Wesley Ira Purkey – kidnapping
      Alfred Bourgeois – not clear from article or quick web review. Crossed state lines?
      Dustin Lee Honken – continuing criminal enterprise

      But then, anything is federal now. They could go after one for throwing the body into a body of water; probably not capital crime, but you know – – –

  12. Trump crime family Consigliari Barr knows that upholding the strict rule of law is the best cover when you are breaking the law.

  13. I oppose state-sanctioned murder too, but I support the death penalty — especially in these cases (although in most of them, I wonder about why the Federal government is involved).

  14. The anti-DP people keep saying that “life imprisonment is just as good.” Tell that to the last victim of Donald (Pee Wee) Gaskins! Gaskins, a known serial killer, was given life without parole in prison…and killed another inmate for hire.

    Also, there’s always the possibility that some murdering scumbag might get his sentence reduced and get out. While there’s life, there’s hope. There have been cases of people convicted of murder being let out—and killing yet again.

    Finally, I’d love to get rid of the part of that amendment that talks about “cruel and unusual” punishment. As I understand it, what they meant was that, for example, if the usual penalty for murder was hanging, they couldn’t sentence a particularly horrible murderer to be burned at the stake, or something like that. And who defines cruelty, anyway? You? Me? Mister Rogers? The guillotine is swift and sure-fire enough to be all but painless, and if it was good enough for the King and Queen of France, it’s good enough for our modern murderers.

  15. Dead men kill no more.

  16. DP is fine. You guys are pussies.

    The majority of people who get busted and sentenced to death are probably super guilty. I’d bet it’s 99.9% or higher. The only real problem with it is how much time we waste to get the job done with people who are 110% guilty, and everybody knows it.

    Frankly, if I was the rare falsely accused guy… I think I would rather be put to death than in prison for 30, 40, 50 years. Killing somebody is putting them out of their misery. Since we’re too weak sauce to force child rapists/murderers to get anally raped every day with a spiked mace, or something that would be truly appropriate IMO, we might as well just whack them and be done with it.

  17. […] delay.” This comes on the heels of U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr’s recent announcement that the Department of Justice would resume capital punishment for the first time in nearly 20 […]

  18. […] been released). Attorney General William Barr has announced the Justice Department will resume executing inmates on death row after a decades-long moratorium, and Trump has made it clear that he’d like to see even more […]

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