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Stop this week's federal executions

A plea to acting Attorney General Rosen

Jeffrey Sachs and Mario Marazziti | January 11, 2021 |

Editor's Note: Jeffrey D. Sachs is a professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. Mario Marazziti is part of the Community of Sant'Egidio, co-founder of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, and author of Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty (Seven Stories Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.

Lisa Montgomery appears in a booking photo released December 20, 2004 in Kansas City, Kansas.
Lisa Montgomery appears in a booking photo released December 20, 2004 in Kansas City, Kansas.

(CNN) Last Wednesday's insurrection left five dead. More than 3,000 Americans are dying on average each day from Covid-19, partly because of President Donald Trump's disregard for public health. Less known is that Trump has also unleashed a mad rush of federal executions, with three more scheduled for this week at the Terre Haute federal prison facility in Indiana.

This, even as demands rise for Trump's immediate departure from office. These rushed executions must be stopped so that the Department of Justice under President Joe Biden can review these cases and the federal policy on death sentences generally.

Trump's frenzy of federal executions began last year. There had been no federal executions since 2003. Since July, the federal government has executed 10 people, more than in any presidency since 1896. The federal spree took place in a year with a 37-year low in executions nationally, just seven by the states.

If there was any lingering doubt about Trump's use of American institutions for his personal delusional motives, there should be none now. Trump's support for the unleashing of federal executions is a reflection of the same apparent glee that led Trump to pay for full-page ads calling for the state to adopt the death penalty after the infamous Central Park Five case in New York in 1989.

Lisa Montgomery is scheduled for execution on Tuesday for murder. She would be the first woman to be executed on federal death row for a murder committed by a person that society should have given support and treatment since childhood, and never did. Court documents show that Montgomery herself was a victim of incest, child sex trafficking, gang rape, physical abuse and neglect, largely at the hands of family members, and has resulted in "incurable and significant psychiatric disabilities." Those who kept her in slavery for half her lifetime were never punished.

Dustin Higgs is scheduled to be executed on Thursday for his involvement in the kidnapping and murder of three women. Higgs did not personally kill the victims, and the person who did received life without parole.

Corey Johnson is also scheduled for execution on Thursday for his involvement in the murder of seven people. His lawyers argued in a brief in December that he is intellectually disabled. "When he was in his early twenties, achievement testing measured his grade-equivalent levels no higher than second grade in reading and writing. When he was last tested at age 45, Mr. Johnson was still at an elementary school level," his lawyers wrote. This is important to note because Johnson's co-defendant was spared the death penalty because of his intellectual disability.

To be clear, we are not arguing that these three people haven't done terrible things. They have, but details of their cases should be enough not to rush their deaths. While we oppose the death penalty as a matter of principle, those who favor it should never overlook powerful reasons to spare a life. The executions this week can and must be stopped. Trump bent the Department of Justice to his bloody plans while it was under former Attorney General William Barr. Now the last three executions are in the hands of acting Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen, and could also be postponed by the warden of the Terre Haute federal prison complex, T. J. Watson.

Each execution could also be a Covid-19 super-spreader event that puts at risk the guards, inmates, lawyers, journalists, relatives, observers, general population, and spiritual counsellors. A fact that Watson is surely aware of, since a federal court recently stayed the executions at Terre Haute until Covid-19 protections could be put in place. In mid-December it was reported that Higgs and Johnson tested positive for the virus.

The attorney general or the warden need only to say the word, and the scheduled executions will be postponed until the Biden administration. To allow these executions to proceed at this moment would be a life-defining tragedy of acting Attorney General Rosen.

We call on Rosen to put a halt to these judicial murders. We call on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to call on the Department of Justice to desist, and to make it clear that it is the will of Congress that we have suffered far too many deaths as a result of decisions by Trump. Justice requires that all three scheduled executions be stayed until President Biden and his attorney general can decide on these three cases and on federal death sentence policy generally.

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