President Donald Trump (right) with Attorney General William Barr.
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
When William Barr announced in July that the Trump administration would resume executing federal death-row prisoners by the end of the year, a practice that has been under unofficial moratorium since 2003, he framed it as a debt being settled with the families of the prisoners’ victims. “The Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” the attorney general said. But in reality, at least 175 members of these families don’t actually want the people who murdered their loved ones to be killed. In letters addressed to the White House and the Justice Department on Tuesday, they joined scores of current and former criminal-justice officials pleading with the administration to reconsider. “We want a justice system that holds people who commit violence accountable, reduces crime, provides healing, and is responsive to the needs of survivors,” reads one of the letters, which were reviewed by the Washington Post. “On all these measures, the death penalty fails.”
Advocates for strictly punitive approaches to criminal justice often claim to be working on behalf of victims — a narrow and monolithic group, in their framing — whose members all share the same priority: to levy the harshest punishment available against their victimizers. This necessarily precludes addressing the complicated spaces between total punishment and total exoneration, the reality that victimizers are often victims of violence themselves, and, perhaps most crucially, listening to what actual victims and their families say they want. “I can’t see how executing Daniel [Lewis] Lee will honor my daughter in any way,” Earlene Peterson said last month, referencing the white supremacist who had murdered her daughter and granddaughter in Arkansas in 1999 and who is the first person scheduled to be executed in December, according to the Post. “I don’t want this to happen.”
The enthusiasm with which officials continue to pursue capital punishment despite pleas like those of Peterson and her nearly 200 cohorts is a clear indication that victims’ families, on whose behalf Barr and Trump claim to be operating, are often secondary to a more self-serving political agenda. Encouraging the perception that one is “tough on crime” is a proven boon for a politician in an election and has cemented the careers of countless judges, prosecutors, legislators, and even presidents. There are few more effective ways to prove one’s commitment to this principle than by doling out executions at any opportunity. But rhetoric clashes with reality when it becomes clear that, rather than producing closure, capital punishment is particularly effective at deferring it. It defies certainty by being racist and error prone, with black people comprising 34 percent of prisoners executed since 1976 (despite being just 13 percent of the general population), while 165 people sentenced to death since 1973 were later proven innocent. A 2014 study from the National Academy of Sciences estimated further that, at the current rate, 4.1 percent of people now on death row will eventually be exonerated. “[Please] don’t listen to judges or prosecutors or legislators that are going to tell you this is wonderful, it brings closure, it brings healing,” Gail Rice, one of the letter signers and the sister of a Denver police officer slain in 1997, told the Post. “Because believe me, it doesn’t.”
The myriad problems with capital punishment are well documented, and many are outlined in Tuesday’s letters. Aside from being racist and error prone, there’s no evidence that it deters crime; it costs a lot of money that could go toward mental-health services and housing and anti-poverty programs, all of which would help prevent crime to begin with; and it’s often carried out using painful lethal-injection techniques that tread dangerously close to violating the Eighth Amendment, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment. Among developed economies, the United States is an outlier in its application, with Japan being the only other such nation that uses it. Even here, its deployment is declining: More than 20 U.S. states have stopped the practice altogether, whether by abolition or moratorium, and only nine have performed executions since 2007, according to the Post.
But the fact that Barr and Trump’s plan also defies the will of so many victims’ families and criminal-justice workers past and present is among the more viscerally compelling reasons for America to stop killing death-row prisoners — especially considering that the will of these groups is the reason given for pursuing such executions in the first place. The death penalty would be a travesty even if victims and their families loved it unequivocally. Even so, few refutations of the standard pro-capital-punishment logic are more direct than that exhibited by its opposition this week. It the Trump administration truly cared about how victims’ families felt and what they wanted out of the criminal-justice system, they’d take Tuesday’s letters to heart and interrogate what it actually means to find justice after a murder. But they’ll do no such thing. They don’t actually care about the victims or their families. They care about revenge and the cathartic release it generates. They care about affirming their right to kill.