Durbin, Warren, Booker, Colleagues Request Investigation of Trump Administration's Unprecedented Spree of Federal Executions

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, joined Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Ed Markey (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) in a letter to Michael E. Horowitz, Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), seeking an investigation of the frenzied and unprecedented “spree of federal executions during [President Trump's] lame-duck period.”  

In July 2020, the Trump Administration ended a 17-year hiatus on federal executions when it executed Daniel Lewis Lee, and followed that with six more executions between July 16, 2020, and September 24, 2020.  Since his defeat at the polls in the November 2020 election, President Trump and political appointees at the DOJ have ramped up the pace of executions during the lame duck period of his presidency, with executions of Orlando Hall on November 19, 2020; Brandon Bernard on December 10, 2020; and Alfred Bourgeois on December 11, 2020.  Three more executions are scheduled mere days before the end of President Trump’s term in January 2021, including Lisa Montgomery, who would be the first woman to be put to death by the federal government in 67 years."

“This spree of executions marks a break with both modern history and decades-old practice. Prior to the Trump Administration's revival of federal executions, the federal government had not executed a federal prisoner since 2003 and has only executed three people in the previous 50 years. And the executions that have and are scheduled to occur after November 3, 2020 are ‘the first executions under a ‘lame duck’ president in over 100 years,’ and come despite the fact that ‘President-elect Joe Biden has said he intends to end the use of capital punishment by the federal government while in office,’” wrote the Senators.

The reversal of long-standing DOJ policies and protocols for federal executions raise numerous questions about the fairness and application of these policies and protocols by the Trump Administration, including the clear evidence that “racial bias against defendants of color and in favor of white victims has a strong effect on who is capitally prosecuted, sentenced to death, and executed,” whether concerns about botched executions have been fully addressed, and whether “employing death sentences during a pandemic is unsafe,particularly when it requires inmates, their families, and legal representatives, and teams of federal execution specialists to travel to the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, where executions are held.”

To address concerns, the lawmakers request that the investigation reviews the following matters:

  1. What was the policy rationale for the 2019 reversal of long-standing policies and processes that prevented federal executions since 2003? Did DOJ officials conduct appropriate analyses and review when determining whether to reverse those policies and procedures?
  2. Does the application of the federal death penalty under President Trump exhibit a pattern or practice of racial bias?
  3. Has the Trump Administration taken appropriate steps to ensure that federal executions are not botched and are conducted in the most humane fashion possible?
  4. What are the costs of federal executions? Why has the Bureau of Prisons used secretive, no-bid contracts to obtain lethal injection drugs, and was the use of these contracts appropriate? 
  5. Has the Trump Administration taken appropriate steps to ensure that families and legal representatives of those that are put to death, and federal officials involved in executions are protected from the spread of COVID-19?

Full text of the letter is available here.