Michael Clifford: Trump's exploitation of death penalty a desperate measure

In one week in Donald Trump’s America, three men were killed by the state for crimes they had all committed up to 30 years ago, writes Michael Clifford
Michael Clifford: Trump's exploitation of death penalty a desperate measure
Protesters against the death penalty gather in Terre Haute, Ind., Monday, July 13, 2020. Daniel Lewis Lee, a convicted killer, was scheduled to be executed at 4 p.m. in the federal prison in Terre Haute. He was convicted in Arkansas of the 1996 killings of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell. Photo: AP/Michael Conroy

The exploitation of the death penalty by Donald Trump is one of the many stains his presidency has left on the US. In the space of a week this month, the federal government executed three death row inmates. 

This came after a 17-year informal moratorium on federal executions.

Many had thought that the federal government, in keeping with trends in public opinion, was quietly 'parking' the death penalty. 

But then somebody spotted that there would be political advantage in turning back the clock and killing a few inmates in the run-up to this November’s presidential election.

The US is unique among developed western democracies in retaining the death penalty. 

Of the 53 counties that still deploy the ultimate sanction, Japan is the only other liberal democracy to do so. And the Japanese execute very rarely — unlike the Americans.

In recent decades, it has seemed that the US might finally be coming to terms with the evolution of best criminal justice practice and moving away from executions. 

Opinion polls have shown that the death penalty is losing popularity. 

For instance, in 2003, the last time the federal government had performed an execution, a Gallup poll had 72% in favour of the penalty. By last year this had fallen 56%.

In another Gallup poll, 60% of Americans last November favoured life in prison for murder rather than the death penalty. This was up from 45% in 2014.

So it would seem that there is finally a growing acceptance that the penalty has zero impact on deterrence and amounts to little more than revenge. 

However, in some states — sometimes driven by self-righteous religious fervour — it remains popular. These are the same states where Mr Trump’s base is most solid.

The vast majority of executions are carried out by one of the states, but the federal government steps in for some of the most serious crimes. 

Between 1988 and this month, there were just three federal executions. Then in July 2019, Mr Trump’s attorney general William Barr, announced that the killing would recommence.

“We owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” Mr Barr said at the time.

The first man scheduled to die was Daniel Lewis Lee. He had been sentenced to death in 1999. 

He had been involved with a white supremacist gang which robbed an arms dealer in Arkansas and murdered the dealer, his wife and daughter.

The ringleader of the group, Chevie Kehoe, who recruited Lewis Lee, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

The fact that he didn’t receive the death penalty but Lewis Lee did is presented as an example of the randomness of the system.

By all accounts, Kehoe presented in court as a clean-cut individual, whereas Lewis Lee displayed tattoos on his neck and is blind in one eye.

He spent 21 years on death row. That is a sentence in itself as it is served largely in solitary confinement. 

The US group critical of the administration of the death penalty — the Death Penalty Information Centre — points out that many legal experts inside and outside the country have concluded that this is a form of cruel and unusual punishment, comparable to torture: “Many death row inmates suffer from mental illness, and the isolation of death row often exacerbates their condition. Older inmates also suffer from increasing physical disabilities, rendering their ultimate execution a particularly demeaning action.”

Lewis Lee was executed by lethal injection on July 14. For four hours before the drugs were administered, he was strapped to the gurney on which he would die, awaiting last-minute appeals to various courts.

He died despite the opinion from the prosecutor at his trial that he shouldn’t be killed because his case demonstrated the “inexplicable randomness” of the death penalty.

The judge who oversaw the trial wrote a letter to then-attorney general, Eric Holder, in 2015 saying he had repeatedly second-guessed his sentence since the trial and was left “with the firm conviction that justice was not served in this particular case, solely with the sentence of death imposed on Daniel Lee Lewis". 

Several members of the victims’ family also opposed the sentence, one even attempting to sue the government for holding the execution during the pandemic, according to the New York Times

The premise proffered by Mr Barr to restart executions was, in this instance at least, completely redundant.

The only relevant people who wanted the sentence carried out were those interested in the re-election of Mr Trump. 

The execution was designed to simply send a message to his base that he is a tough guy. 

While he has, in recent months, demonstrated a complete inability to deal with the pandemic, he is still in a position to use the levers of power as a vote enhancing tool. 

He must excite his base enough to get out and vote even if their enthusiasm is on the wane. And one core component of the base is the religious Right, which perversely opposes abortion and advocates the death penalty with equal fervour. On such a premise Lewis Lee was put to death.

Less than 48 hours later, another federal death row inmate, Wesley Purkey, was also executed, this time in Indiana. The Supreme court again rejected last-minute appeals.

Purkey who was 68, had been sentenced in 1998 for the rape and murder of 16-year-old Jennifer Long.

His last words were: “I deeply regret the pain and suffering I caused to Jennifer’s family ... this sanitised murder really does not serve no purpose whatsoever. Thank you.”

A day later, on July 17, Dustin Lee Honken was put to death in Indiana. He was a drug dealer in 1993 when he was in his 20s, and had murdered five people.

After his execution, his attorney said that Honken had redeemed himself while behind bars.

“He recognised and repented for the crimes he had committed and spent his time in prison atoning for them,” Shawn Nolan, said.

That was some week’s work in Mr Trump’s America. Three men killed by the state for crimes they had all committed up to 30 years ago. These were, in each case, terrible crimes, for which society and the victims were entitled to justice.

But what justice was served? What was done that was simply anything more than revenge? 

In killing the three guilty men, the federal government effectively turned back the clock, ignored the rising body of opinion polls, and had scant regard for anybody but the political fortunes of Mr Trump.

Desperate measures for an increasingly desperate man.

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