The President of Death

Between July 2020 and January 15, 2021, Donald J. Trump’s administration executed 13 people: one woman and twelve men.  That was more federal executions – in just six months — than in the last fifty-six years.  More executions than the “last ten presidents combined.”  This string of uninterrupted killings has not been seen since the United States Supreme Court stayed the death penalty in the 1970s. These executions are a perfect macabre ending for what the man and his presidency represented to the world.

Trump embraced an “ethos of death,” and his administration signed on to this culture, especially Attorney General William Barr. This ethos was visible in the separation of immigrant children from their families at the border, the deployment of herd immunity to manage the COVID-19 crisis, the use of federal agents to attack peaceful protesters, the inciting of sedition and murder, and, finally, the rush to execute as many humans as possible before Trump left office.  For the 45th president and his administration, the power to kill means strength, and Trump wanted the world to see him as a strong man. His theory was that the strong would live, the weak will die: that outcome was acceptable, if not preferred.  This image-building mission led him and his minions to embrace cruelty as the organizing theme for their governance philosophy.

At the core of this ethos of death was racial animus, exemplified by one of his first acts as a president—banning Muslims from entering the country. He further called Haiti and other majority-black countries “shithole” countries and repeatedly targeted the “Squad” of Congresswomen. This group comprises a Black woman, a Hispanic woman, an African-origin woman, an Asian woman, an Arab woman, and Muslim women.

The death penalty embrace continued Trump’s theme of explicit racial hostility to all non-White people and ethnic groups.  This animosity was supported and encouraged by the people who voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020.  In 2016,Trump won 62 percent of White male voters and 47 percent of White women.  In 2020,  he won 61 percent of White male voters and increased his White women’s share by 8 points to 55 percent.

Poor people and the working class are not the only White people voting for Trump, meaning that Trump’s racial animus was effective beyond just pitting poor Whites against poor non-Whites. The New York Times exit polls show that the largest share of White voters for Trump in 2020 earned over $100,000 per year.  The majority of White voters earning less voted for Biden (44 percent for those earning under $50,000 and 42 percent of those earning $50,000 to $99,999).  In 2016, Trump won the $50,000 to 99,999.00 group but Clinton carried the under $50,000 group.  So, the narrative that Trump won in 2016 because of economic anxiety among White “working-class” individuals is not supported by the evidence, unless you define working-class as those earning more than $100,000 per year.  So, what explains this support for Trump in 2016, and especially 2020, when it was clear that the president engaged in explicitly racialized behaviors and practices?

In a paper presented to the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, Diana Mutz found that the factors explaining the Trump voter were related to American global dominance and the rise of a majority-minority America.  These are issues that threaten White Americans’ sense of dominant group status and cause a racial backlash.  Hence, it is not surprising that support for Trump in 2020 among White voters grew when his racial rhetoric became even more vitriolic.

The same voters support the death penalty.  Research shows that in over seventy-five percent of executionssince 1976, the variable that most predicts execution is not the perpetrator’s race; instead, it is the victim’s race that controls and predicts these outcomes.  After 1940, there were 1,000 executions before a White person was executed for killing a Black person in 2005.  Even then, the reason for the punishment of the notorious South Carolina serial killer, “Peewee” Gaskins, was not because he killed a Black person.  He killed someone while already incarcerated for killing nine people; hence, the Department of Correction’s penal policy required his execution. David Bruck, the chief lawyer of the South Carolina Office of Appellate Defense at the time, clarified the reason for the punishment: “That’s apparently the sort of criminal record a White man needs to be executed for the murder of a black.”  This form of punishment has historically been used against people who kill White people (Tabak, 1999), so it is a perfect medium for Trump to signal his supporters that he is the president of White people.

Forty-one percent of death row inmates are Black. This disproportionate representation has been a fact since the 1930s.  Ellen Donnelly argues that the death penalty’s imposition has historical roots, especially in the south, as it is a sanction applied differently for Blacks than for Whites (Donnelly, 2018). Racial disparities in sentencing date back to the country’s founding and were once explicit in Black Codes, like South Carolina, that expressly provided different punishments for Whites and Blacks who committed the same crime.  Though no longer formally blessed by the law, continuing disparate treatment is directly tied to jury members who may harbor racial attitudes and prejudices.  For instance, Espinoza and Willis-Esqueda found in their research that White Americans are more willing to recommend the death penalty for indigent Latino defendants (Espinoza, 2015).  Prosecutors in Philadelphia are trained on how to keep African-Americans off of juries to protect the power of White jurors’ racial biases, reflecting the racial bias of prosecutors (Tabak, 1999).

In 1990, the United States General Accounting Office reached the following findings on the death penalty:

In 82 percent of the studies those who murdered Whites were found to be more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks… The race of victim influence was found at all stages of the criminal justice system process… (e.g., prosecutorial decision to charge defendant with a capital offense, decision to proceed to trial rather than plea bargain) than in later stages… Finally, more than three-fourths of the studies that identified a race of defendant effect found that black defendants were more likely to receive the death penalty.

Additionally, Trump created the perfect court to allow this rush to death to happen.  The United States Supreme Court supported his administration’s death ethos, permitting thirteen executions with little more than a cursory review.  In dissent, Sonia Sotomayor decried the actions of the court:

Very few of these decisions offered any public explanation for their rationale.  After waiting almost two decades to resume federal executions, the government should have proceeded with some measure of restraint to ensure it did so lawfully. When it did not, this court should have. It has not.

The combined forces of juror bias, prosecutorial bias, and judicial bias are essential to explaining Black people’s overrepresentation on America’s death rows.

Interestingly, the United States’ position on the death penalty stands in stark contrast to Western nations.  In 2019, the United States was sixth in actual executions after China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Egypt.  No other western country allows death as a punishment for crime.

The stories of the Trump lawyers’ dogged determination to make these executions happen are as morally suspect as their cavalier attitudes toward death. The parties performed the killings late at night.  The stories of the executed are also troubling.  Kenneth Williams had a painful reaction to the drugs used to end his life because they failed quality tests. Marcel Williams was strapped to a gurney as his case was still being argued on appeal, Alfred Dubois was developmentally disabled, and Wesley Purkey had schizophrenia, dementia, and Alzheimer’s.  After the executions, Trump bragged.

To be clear, the reason Trump was successful in this program has as much to do with him as it does with the people who support him. Eric Tennen argues that when the Supreme Court decided that juveniles and developmentally delayed persons could not be executed,  the impact was that Americans accepted the penalty for everyone else (Tennen, 2005).  A more accurate statement is that White southerners overwhelmingly embraced the death penalty.  Of the 2102 executions since 1976, 1250 occurred in the south, 570 in Texas, 191 in the Midwest, 87 in the west, and 4 in the north.  If you overlay the regional map for death penalty executions with the Electoral College map, the states would almost perfectly align.  Support for Trump is virtually equal to support for the death penalty.  This support has not diminished even when data shows that since 1973, 174 people placed on death row were subsequently exonerated.  That’s because this culture of death for people of color correlates to the racial hostility Trump and his voters hold.  Hence, the death penalty is a perfect medium to communicate to a constituency that you share their anger, fear, and racism; therefore, you will protect them by removing anything – or anyone – who they believe threaten their status in society.

It is not difficult to understand the message, the plan, and the tools used to implement the plan. What is difficult is getting the public and media to recognize that this form of punishment is discriminatory and unjust.  President Biden opposes the death penalty, so his position suggests that federal executions will end and the forty-nine prisoners still in federal custody will not suffer this penalty. While this is a positive for repeal advocates, it does not critically impact most prisoners who are awaiting death. The overwhelming majority of death row inmates, 2,553, sit in state prisons.  However, emerging trends support an argument that Americans are beginning to prefer an alternative to death.  Even in Alabama, where support is at 63%, this still represents a decline in support of the penalty.

Further, more and more Americans are beginning to acknowledge that innocent people are wrongfully convicted.  Perhaps, with Trump out of the White House and the silencing of his Twitter megaphone, Americans will move away from the southern attitude of supporting death as a method of protecting racial superiority.  The subject of how the implementation of the death penalty is a cover for discriminatory practices is an essential topic that must be a part of a continuing discussion centered on achieving global racial and ethnic justice for everyone.

 

 

Teresa Cosby is a Professor of Political Science at Furman University.  She is a law clerk for United States Magistrate Judge William Catoe, Jr. and served as an Assistant Deputy Attorney General for the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office.  Cosby served as Executive Director of South Carolina Legal Services and the Black Family Land Trust.  She received her B.A. from Howard University and her J.D. from Howard University School of Law.

 

 

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