Once again, the President (for a few more days) of the United States, Donald Trump, will stand out from his predecessors. Federal authorities were preparing their 13th and last execution in six months on Friday, a series never before seen in American history. The Supreme Court has given the green light for Dustin Higgs, a 48-year-old black man, to receive a lethal injection at the federal penitentiary in Terre-Haute, Indiana.
One evening in January 1996, he had invited three young women to his apartment near Washington, with two friends. One of them having refused his advances, he had offered to renew them, but had stopped in an isolated federal reserve. According to the Ministry of Justice, he then ordered one of his friends to shoot the three women. In 2000, he was sentenced to death for kidnapping and murder. The author of the shots was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Systematic green light from the Supreme Court
“It is arbitrary and unfair to punish Mr. Higgs more than the killer,” said his lawyer, Shawn Nolan, in a request for clemency addressed to Donald Trump. As in other cases, the Republican president, a fervent defender of the death penalty, did not follow up. On the contrary, his administration fought in court to be able to proceed with the execution before he left the White House, in five days.
A court on Tuesday granted Dustin Higgs a reprieve because he contracted Covid-19 and is likely to suffer more at the time of the injection of pentobarbital. The Department of Justice immediately appealed and won the case. A last recourse, which related to questions of jurisdiction, was studied by the Supreme Court, which rejected it: the high court, profoundly changed by Donald Trump, now has six conservative judges out of nine and they have systematically given their fire green to federal executions since the summer.
“There have never been so many federal executions in such a short period of time”
The Republican administration resumed in July with a practice suspended for seventeen years, while at the same time states postponed all executions to avoid spreading the virus. Since then, twelve Americans have received lethal injections in Terre-Haute, including, for the first time in nearly seventy years, a woman, executed despite doubts about her mental health.
“There have never been so many federal executions in such a short period of time,” notes Richard Dunham, director of the Information Center on the Death Penalty. “The maximum number of civilians executed by the federal authorities was sixteen in 1896, and there we are about to have thirteen executions in six months.”
Usually, pardons at the end of the term
With the execution of Dustin Higgs, six will have taken place since Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election on November 3, again unheard of, adds Richard Dunham. “Historically, presidents at the end of their mandate have focused on pardons and commutation of sentences,” he recalls. Before Donald Trump, no outgoing president “has exercised his discretion to kill people rather than to spare them.”
If the pace is unprecedented, the profile of convicts reflects, according to the expert, recurring problems in the application of the death penalty in the United States, with an over-representation of people of color (seven of the thirteen), two people with severe intellectual disabilities, two with mental health problems and two just major at the time of their crime.
Biden opposed to the death penalty
Sensitive to these faults, Democrat Joe Biden, who will be sworn in on Wednesday, campaigned on his opposition to the death penalty and pledged to work with Congress to try to abolish it at the federal level. Democratic parliamentarians on Monday introduced a bill to this effect. Their party having regained control of the Senate, it could be adopted.
“But the Democrats will have to convince some of their Republican colleagues,” said Richard Dunham, recalling that no abolitionist measure has ever been adopted without the support of both parties.