The Trump Administration’s 2020-21 execution spree came to an end on Friday with the execution of the Dustin Higgs. Higgs was the 13th person put to death since federal executions resumed in July, 2020.
A close look at those executed over the last six months shows that the federal death penalty is not reserved for the “worst of the worst” as some of its proponents contend. Instead it targets the most disadvantaged and disabled of those charged with capital crimes.
Having an intellectual disability, a mental illness, or a history of childhood abuse and trauma turns out to be a very important, though often unappreciated, factor in explaining both who ends up on death row and who gets executed.
That is just one of the reasons why President-Elect Joe Biden should take decisive steps to end the federal death penalty and lead a campaign for nationwide abolition of capital punishment.
Criticism of the death penalty often rightly highlights its discriminatory application or, in the case of the federal government’s use of this punishment, its geographic arbitrariness. In addition, the Trump administration’s recent rush to execute disregarded the rights of the condemned to adequate legal representation, and in several cases ignored the wishes of victim’s’ families.
And it did not let the difficulties and dangers caused by the COVID-19 pandemic derail its plan.
Much has been made of the unprecedented nature of carrying out lame duck executions, especially since the federal government ramped up the death penalty just as its use is declining in states across the country.
Less visible, though no less important, in understanding the injustice and inhumanity of what Trump did and of the death penalty system in general is that the overwhelming majority of those facing execution today suffer from significant intellectual disabilities, mental illnesses, or a disabling history of childhood abuse and trauma.
Last summer, just before the resumption of federal executions, the Death Penalty Information Center found that 85 percent of those on federal death row had “at least one serious impairment that significantly reduces their culpability, and 63 percent had two or more of these impairments.”
The DPIC also reported that one-half were mentally ill, suffering from diseases such as schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder or psychosis. Three quarters had been the victims of physical abuse and trauma during their childhoods. As a result, one-third had developmental brain damage or traumatic brain injury.
It is thus not surprising that a similar pattern would appear among those the feds chose to put to death. Nine of the 13 of those individuals had significant intellectual disabilities, severe mental illness, and/or histories of abuse.
Despite the seriousness of the crimes for which they were convicted and sentenced, they look less like society’s most dangerous or morally culpable and more like people who were neglected and abandoned by society.
Take Daniel Lewis Lee, the first of those Trump executed. Lee was neglected and severely abused by his stepfather throughout his early life. He had profound learning disabilities which went undiagnosed throughout his childhood and contributed to serious educational deficits. In addition, he suffered from borderline personality disorder.
The man who followed Lee, Wesley Purkey, was similarly disabled. In and out of psychiatric hospitals since he was 14, he had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of childhood abuse as well as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. His father paid prostitutes to fondle him when he was a child, and his mother joined in the sexual abuse.
By the time of his July execution, he had Alzheimer’s and dementia, and was delusional.
Purkey believed that he was going to be put to death not for his crime but because he had filed too many grievances against the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He thought he was the victim of dark, conspiratorial forces. As a psychiatrist who examined him concluded, Purkey “lacks a rational understanding for the basis for his execution.”
But the Trump administration executed him anyway.
Lisa Montgomery, the first woman executed by the federal government since 1953, was the victim of severe physical abuse as child which resulted in brain damage. As one commentator noted, “She was gang-raped repeatedly as an 11-year-old girl by her stepfather and his friends. Her mother trafficked her in exchange for plumbing and electrical work…. (H)er stepfather smashed her head against the concrete floor of a room he built to rape her.”
Montgomery had also been delusional throughout her life as a result of the mental illnesses she inherited from her parents.
That people like Lee, Purkey, and Montgomery could be put to death may seem surprising since, almost two decades ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled, in Atkins v. Virginia, that executing offenders with intellectual disabilities violates the Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments.
The court said that people suffering from such disabilities can still know the difference between right and wrong and be punished. But “because of their disabilities in areas of reasoning, judgment, and control of their impulses…they do not act with the level of moral culpability that characterizes the most serious adult criminal conduct.”
Yet the Supreme Court refused to offer a clear definition of what constituted a disqualifying illness, leaving that judgment to judges and juries untrained in and unfamiliar with intellectual disabilities, mental illness, and the lifelong consequences of childhood trauma. And it has refused to do so from then until now.
The cases of those put to death by the federal government illustrate the failure of the court’s approach.
Judges and juries often cannot comprehended how intellectual disability, mental illness, and childhood abuse could explain why people commit serious offenses. And far from making those who suffer from abuse or illness seem less culpable, they may lead decision makers to conclude that they are more dangerous. Judges and juries can put them, as the Trump administration did, at the head of the line among those who get a death sentence.
Experience has shown that law alone cannot combat such stereotypes and misunderstandings.
As a result, disadvantaged and intellectually disabled people continue, as the Trump administration execution spree shows, to be among the offenders who are most likely to be subject to America’s ultimate punishment.
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy captured the injustice and inhumanity of this practice in 2014, when he said that “to impose the harshest of punishments on an intellectually disabled person violates his or her inherent dignity as a human being.” Imposing the death penalty upon offenders with these kinds of functional impairments, he continued, serves “no legitimate penological purpose.”
The incoming Biden administration should acknowledge Kennedy’s wisdom. It should act urgently to stop executions of the impaired, indeed of all who have been convicted of capital crimes, by ending the federal death penalty and lending its weight to abolishing capital punishment throughout the United States.