Trump Is Putting the Machinery of Death Into Overdrive

After 17 years without a federal execution in the United States, the Trump administration has gone on what can only be called a killing spree.

An execution chamber
Virgnia Department of Corrections / AP

About the author: Clint Smith is a staff writer at The Atlantic. He is the author of the poetry collection Counting Descent and the narrative nonfiction book How the Word Is Passed.

The first time I stood in an execution chamber, what I remember most was the stillness of the room. In November 2018, I visited Angola prison in Louisiana, and saw where the state injected prisoners with a cocktail that rendered them unconscious, paralyzed their muscles, discontinued their breathing, and stopped their hearts.

The table was long and blue, its leather upholstery covering a thin layer of foam padding. There were seven discolored brown-and-blue straps that stretched across its width, each of them locked and pulled tight. At the foot of the table were two shackles, silver metal glimmering under the fluorescent lights.

I have been thinking about that room—what it felt like to stand in a room built to kill—as the federal government has rushed to execute more than a dozen people in the final months of Donald Trump’s presidency.

After 17 years without a federal execution in the United States, the Trump administration has gone on what can only be called a killing spree. It has used the power of the state to eliminate people from the world—to strip people of their very breath. Taking life is the most serious thing any government has the power to do.

The executions resumed in July 2020.

At 8:07 a.m. on July 14, the federal government executed Daniel Lewis Lee.

At 8:19 a.m. on July 16, the federal government executed Wesley Ira Purkey.

At 4:36 p.m. on July 17, the federal government executed Dustin Lee Honken.

At 6:29 p.m. on August 26, the federal government executed Lezmond Charles Mitchell.

At 4:32 p.m. on August 28, the federal government executed Keith Dwayne Nelson.

At 9:06 p.m. on September 22, the federal government executed William Emmett LeCroy Jr.

At 6:46 p.m. on September 24, the federal government executed Christopher Andre Vialva.

At 11:47 p.m. on November 19, the federal government executed Orlando Cordia Hall.

At 9:27 p.m. on December 10, the federal government executed Brandon Bernard.

At 8:21 p.m. on December 11, the federal government executed Alfred Bourgeois.

At 1:31 a.m. on January 13, the federal government executed Lisa Montgomery.

At 11:34 p.m. on January 14, the federal government executed Cory Johnson.

Tonight, on January 15, the federal government is scheduled to execute Dustin John Higgs.

If the Trump administration is successful in carrying out this last execution, it will have conducted more federal executions in the final months of the president’s term than in the previous 67 years combined.

I believe that the death penalty is and has always been unethical, but the context of these executions has magnified its problems. The killings continued unabated even after Trump lost an election to a man who has committed to ending the death penalty on the federal level. “Because we cannot ensure we get death penalty cases right every time,” the president-elect’s campaign explained, “Biden will work to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example. These individuals should instead serve life sentences without probation or parole.”

Biden will have the power to commute death sentences, and to declare a moratorium on executions while the legislation is pending. Whether people on death row live or die is likely to depend not on the nature of their crime, but simply on whether their execution happens to be scheduled for before or after Biden acts.

I think of my own trip to Angola’s death row, and the men I saw there. I think of what it means to have no control over when or if you will die at the hands of your government. To wait for years, for decades, not knowing when you will get the call from your attorney, but always fearing that the call will come. I think of those on death row who watch as the people with whom they’ve shared a space are put in a van and brought to the place where they will be killed. I think about what they will feel if the federal death penalty is ended, knowing that if the presidential election had gone a different way, they likely would have ridden in that van as well.

We know that the death penalty risks taking the lives of innocent people. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, since 1973, 173 former death-row prisoners have been exonerated of the charges that put them on death row.

We know that the death penalty takes the lives of those with serious mental illness.

We know that the death penalty does not serve as a deterrent for serious crime.

We know that the death penalty is far more likely to be imposed on a convicted murder when that person is Black and the victim is white than when the victim is Black and the killer is white.

But set aside, for a moment, the larger philosophical questions of whether the death penalty should ever be administered, and consider the ethical questions of why it is being carried out at this moment, right now. Trump has become the first president ever to be impeached twice, and now faces trial in the Senate. But even though most of the House of Representatives, including a record number of members of his own party, have declared him unfit for the office he holds, he is still exercising the most awesome of the powers of the state—the power to take a life.

After Lisa Montgomery became the first woman to be executed by the federal government since 1953, her attorney, Kelley Henry, put out a statement: “The craven bloodlust of a failed administration was on full display tonight. Everyone who participated in the execution of Lisa Montgomery should feel shame.”

The people who are scheduled for execution were convicted of involvement in horrifying crimes; the lives they took can never be returned. But the federal government taking their life in return does not represent justice.

The death penalty is wrong because it is wrong. But its inhumanity has been amplified by the context in which the country finds itself. In five days, a president will take office who wants to eliminate the death penalty. And the current administration is attempting one final act of cruelty before he does.