Federal death penalty cases are ticking up under Trump administration
NEW YORK — Before a suspect was even publicly named, President Donald Trump declared that whoever gunned down 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue should “suffer the ultimate price” and that the death penalty should be brought back “into vogue.”
Trump has largely gotten his wish, at least on the federal level, with death penalty cases ticking back up under his Justice Department after a near-moratorium on such prosecutions in President Barack Obama’s last term, when he directed a broad review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal injection.
Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has so far approved at least a dozen death penalty prosecutions over the past two years, according to court filings tracked by the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel, with cases ranging from the high profile to the relatively obscure.
They include the man charged with using a rented truck to fatally mow down eight people on a New York City bike path a year ago; three men charged in a fatal armored truck robbery in New Orleans; a gang suspect in Detroit charged with “murder in aid of racketeering”; and a man charged with fatally shooting a tribal police officer in New Mexico on the nation’s largest American Indian reservation.
The tally could grow higher over the next two months as federal prosecutors await Sessions’ decision in several other cases, including against the alleged synagogue shooter, Robert Bowers, who faces federal hate crime charges and 11 counts of murder.
By comparison, in Obama’s final year in office the Justice Department authorized just one capital prosecution, that of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who fatally shot nine black people in 2015 during a church service in Charleston, South Carolina.
But while the Justice Department under Trump has increased death penalty prosecutions, the numbers are not entirely out of line with those earlier in the Obama administration under Attorney General Eric Holder, who approved 11 capital prosecutions in 2009 and at least 13 in 2012.
And both the Trump and Obama administrations pale in comparison to that of President George W. Bush and his attorney general John Ashcroft, who in 2003 alone signed off on capital prosecutions against more than three dozen defendants, at times overruling his own prosecutors when they recommended against seeking capital punishment.
What makes Trump different, death penalty experts say, is that he publicly advocates for the ultimate punishment in specific cases.
“I think they should very much bring the death penalty into vogue,” Trump told reporters Saturday shortly after news came of the synagogue shooting. “Anybody that does a thing like this to innocent people that are in temple or in church. We had so many incidents with churches. They should really suffer the ultimate price.”
And he took to Twitter just a day after last year’s Manhattan bike path attack to call suspect Sayfullo Saipov a “Degenerate Animal” and argue he “SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!”
Trump also said this year that capital punishment should be used to prosecute drug traffickers. Sessions followed a day later with a memo urging prosecutors to seek the death penalty “for certain drug-related crimes,” including killings occurring during drug trafficking.
“If we’re to be a nation of laws, then the legal process has to be allowed to play itself out without being subject to political manipulation,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center. “Charging decisions should be made based on the evidence, not based on politics and not based on political pressure.”
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Trump was a vocal proponent of the death penalty for decades before taking office, most notably in 1989 when the real estate magnate took out full-page advertisements in New York City newspapers urging elected officials to “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY” following the rape of a jogger in Central Park. “If the punishment is strong,” he wrote at the time, “the attacks on innocent people will stop.”
Five Harlem teenagers were convicted in the Central Park case but had their convictions vacated years later after another man confessed to the rape. The city agreed to pay the so-called Central Park Five $41 million more than a decade after their exoneration — a settlement Trump blasted as “outrageous.”
Polls show a majority of Americans still back the death penalty, but support has been declining in recent years. A 2017 Gallup poll showed 55 percent of Americans supported the death penalty for a person convicted or murder, the lowest percentage in 45 years.
The death penalty remains legal in 30 states, but only a handful regularly conduct executions. Texas has executed 108 prisoners since 2010, far more than any other state.
But such executions on the federal level have been rare. The government has put to death only three defendants since restoring the federal death penalty in 1988, the most recent of which occurred in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of a young female soldier.
In 2014, following a botched state execution in Oklahoma, Obama directed the Justice Department to conduct a broad review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal injection drugs. It remains unclear today what came of that review and whether it will change the way the federal government carries out executions.
The U.S. Bureau of Prisons did not respond to requests for comment.
Trump himself railed against this disconnect between prosecutions and actual executions in his comments after the Pittsburgh attack.
“They shouldn’t have to wait years and years,” he said. “Now the lawyers will get involved, and everybody’s going to get involved, and we’ll be 10 years down the line.”