In a room full of blue brass at a conference in the Big Easy on Aug. 12, US Attorney General Bill Barr vowed to push for new legislation invoking the death penalty for those who commit mass shootings or kill police officers. In a speech to the Fraternal Order of Police in New Orleans, just days after two mass killings of innocent civilians in El Paso and Dayton, the top cop laid down the gauntlet, seemingly daring anyone to argue.
“Punishment must be swift and certain,” Barr intoned.
Without going into explicit detail, Barr did offer one clue: “There will be a timetable for judicial proceedings that will allow imposition of any death sentence without undue delay.”
In other words, the clock begins ticking down when the sentence is imposed, and that makes some folks who believe rehabilitation of violent offenders is possible nervous.
After a hiatus of nearly two decades for the federal death penalty, Barr in July reinstated it, commanding the Bureau of Prisons to schedule by year’s end the execution of “five death-row inmates convicted of murdering, and in some cases torturing and raping, the most vulnerable in our society — children and the elderly.”
Will Barr Be Able to Enforce His Timeline?
Barr told the New Orleans conference-goers, “This administration will not tolerate violence against police, and we will do all we can to protect the safety of law enforcement officers.”
Plans include adopting a new protocol that some states are already using. According to a statement from the Department of Justice, the Federal Execution Protocol Addendum “replaces the three-drug procedure previously used in federal executions with a single drug — pentobarbital.”
But opponents of the death penalty – now threatened with a rocketing death docket – are understandably concerned. Barr’s announcement brought to surface the citing of racial disparities of death row inmates, burdensome financial costs to families, and potentially wrongly convicted prisoners victimized by the judicial system. Add to that a much shorter time frame for appeals, and prison reform activists are asking questions about legality and whether the death penalty is simply immoral for a civilized nation to employ.
More likely than not, legal challenges will prohibit Barr from executing the first five death row men – three Caucasian, one black, and one Native American – on his promised schedule.
Robert Dunham is the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a national non-profit organization funded by the Roderick MacArthur Justice Center, the Open Society Foundations, and other liberal elite organizations. Dunham’s group focuses on how the death penalty is administered, and he believes Barr will have legal issues to face:
“Saying that you are going to adopt a protocol is not the same thing as having a protocol properly adopted through the required administrative procedures. You can’t just say it and have it happen. There is a legal process for a protocol to go into effect, and there is a legal process for challenging the protocol.”
So no one is expecting this process to go smoothly.
Tough on Crime
The men scheduled for execution by lethal injection at year’s end were convicted of exactly the sort of crimes the death penalty is designed to handle:
- Daniel Lewis Lee, for murdering a family of three, including an 8-year-old girl.
- Lezmond Mitchell, for murdering a 63-year-old and her 9-year-old granddaughter.
- Wesley Ira Purkey, for raping and murdering a 16-year-old girl.
- Alfred Bourgeois, for torturing and killing his own 2-year-old daughter.
- Dustin Lee Honken, for shooting and killing five people, including two young girls.
Most Americans prefer their government to take a tough stance on those who break the law. There are simply no excuses for what these men did. No extenuating circumstances can explain why they felt compelled to commit these heinous crimes. If in fact Barr has his way, and their lives are ended, there are 62 more inmates on federal death row waiting to meet their maker, their names scribed in ink on the Bureau of Prison’s calendar. Perhaps that calendar alone will deter others from landing in the same sorry boat.