A series of executions of prisoners casts an even darker shadow over a transition marked by a controversial foreign policy and a challenge to democracy.
If Donald Trump’s first weeks in the White House showed multiple signs of being chaotic, the last are proving to be gloomy and dangerous. In a context of reckless erosion of democratic institutions — with false accusations, controversial foreign policy decisions and political violence as a natural outgrowth after years of polarizing rhetoric — there is also the decision, without precedent in recent history, of carrying out executions during the presidential transition, after an election defeat and before Joe Biden is sworn in. This way, Trump breaks with a long tradition which ended in July, the 17-year moratorium on the execution of inmates sentenced to death under federal law — which is not dependent on the states.
Last week, two men were executed in just two days. On Thursday, 40-year-old Brandon Bernard, the youngest prisoner to receive the federal death penalty in seven decades, was given a lethal injection. The following day, 56-year-old Alfred Bourgeois died by the same procedure. A third inmate was executed in November, and another three death sentences issued by federal courts are expected to be carried out before Jan. 20. If that happens, Trump would become the president who has allowed the most death sentences in more than a century, allowing this to happen 13 times since July.
This is a real tragedy for many reasons. The first is the inhumanity of a punishment that is broadly limited, if not totally abolished, in most of the world’s democratic countries. But it also overturns an 18-year decline in implementing capital punishment in the U.S. There are currently about 2,500 imprisoned Americans waiting on death row. About 50 of them are waiting in federal prisons. In the case of state prisons, it is possible for governors to grant a pardon and commute an execution until the very last second. For federal prisons, however, this is the prerogative of the president. Not only has Trump not exercised this prerogative, but he has allowed death sentences to be carried out knowing that the voters have already picked another president, someone who — after supporting the death penalty for a long time — is now against capital punishment.
This attitude on the part of the American leader is hardly surprising. Consistent with his scorched-earth policy, Trump is doing the worst possible damage to institutions and coexistence in the U.S., where outrageous incidents of political violence are taking place — such as Saturday night’s clashes in Washington. However, while institutions and coexistence can both be restored, the lives of those executed are irreplaceable.