Report: Donald Trump’s Record-Setting Executions Were Even More Appalling Than Previously Thought

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Something you may have picked up on by now is that Donald Trump is a bad man whose elevation to the presidency was a net negative for society. Obviously, the examples supporting this claim could literally fill several hundred books, but today, let’s focus on one in particular: the absolutely callous regard he showed for human life while breaking multiple records for federal executions.

While we already knew the stats—the Trump administration executed more people than any administration in 120 years, oversaw a federal government that executed more Americans in a one-year period than every state combined, and was the first administration since the 1880s to put people to death during a lame-duck period—new reporting from Rolling Stone reveals how little the act of ending 13 lives weighed on him, if it weighed on him at all.

According to the outlet, about a year after signing a bipartisan criminal-reform bill, Trump started “telling advisers that carrying out capital punishment would insulate him from criticism that he was soft on crime,” according to sources familiar with the matter. His attorney general, Bill Barr, was all too happy to oblige, and in July 2019, ordered the Federal Bureau of Prisons to resume executions after a 17-year hiatus. But while taking a human life, even one that may have committed terrible acts in the past, might have kept another president up at night, it appears that Trump barely gave it a thought, beyond what he thought the executions could do for him politically.

Per Rolling Stone:

The sum total of his discussions of the death penalty with his top law enforcement officer, Barr says, was a single, offhand conversation. After an unrelated White House meeting, Barr was preparing to leave the Oval Office when, he says, he gave Trump a “heads-up” that “we would be resuming the death penalty.”

Trump’s lack of interest in the details had grave repercussions for the people whose fates were in his hands. According to multiple sources inside the administration, Trump completely disregarded the advice of the Office of the Pardon Attorney, an administrative body designed to administer impartial pleas for clemency in death penalty cases and other, lower-level offenses. And Barr says he does not recall discussing any of the 13 inmates who were eventually killed with the president who sent them to the death chamber. 

As reporters Asawin Suebsaeng and Patrick Reis write, “That means Trump never talked with Barr about Lisa Montgomery, a deeply mentally ill and traumatized person who became the first woman executed by the federal government since 1953.” Montgomery—who committed an unspeakable act when she arranged a meeting with a dog breeder and then straggled, stabbed, and “cut the fetus out of the dead woman’s womb” and attempted to pass it off as her own—was reportedly raped weekly by her stepfather by the age of 11, raped by her stepfather’s friends, and raped by her stepbrother. In exchange for services like free plumbing, her mother would allow men to sexually assault her. The stepfather is said to have severely beaten her and caused traumatic brain injuries; per Rolling Stone, “Montgomery was diagnosed with, among other conditions, post-traumatic stress disorder and dissociative disorder. MRIs revealed significant brain damage from the childhood beatings,” and psychiatrist and University of Pennsylvania professor Ruben Gur said the physical and mental trauma she endured resulted in her brain being “neither structurally nor functionally sound.” According to Rolling Stone, “It’s unclear whether Trump ever read the petition” her attorneys wrote asking to delay the execution; one of her lawyers told the outlet she is “not convinced that Montgomery fully understood that she was about to die.”

Then there was the case of Brandon Bernard, who’d been sentenced to death for his role, at the age of 18, in the carjacking and murder of a young couple, Todd and Stacie Bagley. Bernard was not the gang member who shot and killed the Bagleys, but he lit the the car that they were in on fire. More than 10 years after his trial, Bernard’s appellate lawyers argued that the prosecution had withheld key evidence showing that he was not the ringleader of the group but “a confused teenager following instructions from his place in the gang’s lowest tier,” per Rolling Stone. One member of the prosecution team wrote an op-ed saying Bernard did not deserve the death penalty. More than half of the jury members who’d sentenced him who were still alive publicly stated that he should be spared. According to Rolling Stone, while recommendations made by the Justice Department’s pardon attorney office are not made public, days after it met with Bernard’s attorneys in 2020, “several sources told Bernard’s team that the attorney had recommended Trump commute the death sentence to life in prison.”

“It gave us hope,” says Stacey Brownstein, who served as an investigator on Bernard’s defense. “It felt for a moment that things were breaking our way.”

In another administration, that might have been enough to save Bernard’s life. But in Trump’s world, it barely registered.

In the remaining days of the administration, Barr “scheduled a string of back-to-back executions, to squeeze in as many as possible before Biden moved into the White House,” with three occurring in Trump’s penultimate week in office. “These inmates were being exterminated,” Kelley Henry, an attorney for Montgomery, told Rolling Stone. “When you see the government flex its power that way—with the cold, callous machinery of death—it’s truly appalling.” She added: “The administration just didn’t care.”

Meanwhile, Trump was commuting sentences and issuing pardons for the convicted criminals who’d worked on his campaign and for his son-in-law’s father, among others.

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