Gary Gilmore, a firing squad member, was executed at Utah State Prison on January 17, 1977. He was the first to be executed in the United States after the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. This year, the anniversary of his execution was marked 45th anniversary of this executionThe event coincided with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Death Penalty Action, and a coalition death penalty abolitionists met in Washington, D.C. to call for an end the federal death penalty and all executions in America.
After a 17-year absence, the United States resumed federal executions one year and a quarter ago. Between July 2020 and Jan 2021, 13 federally executed people were executed by Trump’s administration. This was more than the total federal executions over the past 70 years (1949-1999) that took place under 11 presidents.
Daniel Lewis Lee was one of the executions under Trump’s administration. Wesley Ira PurkeyDustin Lee Honken Lezmond Mitchell, Keith NelsonWilliam LeCroy Jr. Christopher Vialva, Orlando Hall, Brandon Bernard, Alfred Bourgeois Lisa MontgomeryCorey Johnson, Dustin John Higgs. Among this group, considered “irredeemable” by the U.S. government, was a man living with Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia; another who was a member of the Navajo Nation and was the only Native American on federal death row; and another who was a former soldier. One executed man practiced Messianic Judaism and another was a practicing Muslim. The only woman who was on federal death row under Trump — executed in January 2021 — was sexually trafficked by her mother. These details reveal that their existence was more than the crimes for which they were convicted. Each of them has a deeper story that tells us who they were as human beings. It is common to ignore the humanity of those on death row as part of a judicial system.
Joe Biden, as a presidential candidate had promised to end federal death penalty. But, the administration seems not to have kept that promise. To review the Trump administration’s policies, the Biden government placed a moratorium against federal executions in July. Biden has yet to take any steps to end the practice. While federal executions are being halted at the moment, the Department of Justice has maintained and sought death penalty for the high-profile Dzhokar tsarnaev cases and Dylann Roof.
Cases like Roof’s and Tsarnaev’s are cited by proponents of the death penalty to justify its use. The idea that the death penalty is necessary to punish the “worst of the worst” — those like Roof and Tsarnaev, who commit the most heinous of crimes — is one that has been proliferated in the U.S. in defense of a practice that most countries in the world have outlawed.
My home state of Illinois, where death penalty was abolished in 2011 due to the persistent efforts of death penalty opponents, often cited John Wayne Gacy’s case as a reason for continuing the use of the death penalty.
Darby Tillis, who along with his codefendant, Perry Cobb, was the first to be exonerated from Illinois’s death row in 1987, was a fiery and outspoken activist against the death penalty until his death in 2014. We had many conversations about his death row experience. I also asked him about John Wayne Gacy who he was in prison with. His words were very telling. “He was a quiet man who kept to himself,” Tillis told me. “When they executed him, we all knew that we would be next.”
These executions are not performed in a vacuum when the death penalty is sought for persons like Roof or Gacy. “By making a monster out of Gacy, it gives the impression that the system works. But what it really does is let the system off the hook for taking the lives of those it deems expendable,” said Renaldo Hudson, who survived 37 years of incarceration in Illinois, including 13 on death row.
Girvies Davis was one of those men considered “expendable” by the state of Illinois. One year after Gacy’s execution, the state executed Davis, a Black man who was convicted by an all-white jury of killing Charles Biebel, an 89-year-old white man. Scholar-activist Dylan Rodriguez argues that “the very logics of the overlapping criminal justice and policing regimes Systematically perpetuate racial, sexual, gender, colonial, and class violence through carceral power.” Along these lines, it is not surprising that the evidence used to convict Davis was problematic and filled with holes. Prison guards claimed that Davis had passed them a note confessing to Biebel’s murder while he was incarcerated on another charge. Davis was functionally illiterate and couldn’t read or write at the time. Prison logs show that Davis was released from prison the night he allegedly handed the note to guards.
Racial bias against defendants from color has always influenced who is prosecuted, tried, convicted, sentenced and executed. Illinois is known for its high rate of executions on death row. It executed Girvies and Davis before abolishing the death penalty.
Like Davis, Orlando Hall, who was executed by the federal government during Trump’s spree, also faced an all-white jury. In a written testimonyHis redemption journey is described by him:
How did I feel being a black man seeing my all-white jury? I felt like the thousands before me — doomed! I never believed that I would be given a fair trial or a jury made up of my peers. The system is designed to punish people who are of color, and especially those who are poor. I was an uneducated man, functioning illiterate at best, but I also wasn’t a fool.
The federal death penalty is not exempt from the problems that plague Illinois. Rep. AyannaPressley, Senator Dick Durbin and more than 70 other colleagues raised the issue of the death penalty’s systemic racism. Federal Death Penalty Prohibition ActIn 2021. “State-sanctioned murder is not justice, and the death penalty, which kills Black and [B]rown people disproportionately, has absolutely no place in our society,” Pressley said. On December 15, representatives Pressley and Jamie Raskin wrote a letter a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland requesting a briefing on the status of the Department of Justice’s review of the Trump administration’s federal death penalty policies and practices, asking whether the Biden administration plans to resume executions and procure the controversial drug pentobarbital sodium for use in those executions.
It remains to be seen what Biden’s administration will do in 2022. The coalition of activists gathered in D.C. on the 45th anniversary of the first execution under the modern death penalty to hold Biden to his campaign promise. voiced their supportprotested for the Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act. A rally and march were held at the Capitol calling to a new wave of activismTo end the death penalty
Indoors rallyActivist Art LaffinHe shared that he had sought mercy and compassion for the mentally ill homeless man who had repeatedly stabbed and killed his brother. He called for our society to provide a continuum of care for all people like him “so future tragedies like what happened to my brother won’t be repeated again.”
A growing number of murder victims’ loved ones have joined the call to abolish the death penalty, including for people like Timothy McVeigh, who was the first to be executed by the federal government after the death penalty was reinstated in 1988. McVeigh is often cited as an example of someone who deserved the death penalty, with the “logic” that not punishing him by death would be an affront to all the lives lost in the Oklahoma City bombing.
But Bud Welch, the father of Oklahoma City bombing victim Julie Welch, fought tirelessly to stop McVeigh’s execution. Welch even met with McVeigh’s father, Bill, in his Oklahoma City home. This powerful account of the unique meeting is in Grace from the Rubble: Two Fathers’ Road to Reconciliation After the Oklahoma City Bombing, Jeanne Bishop writes that Bud Welch “extended the hand of grace to one who should have been his enemy. That hand was taken in return.”
Bishop, who is a public defender, knows the power of this kind of grace because she extended the same to her sister’s killer. These death penalty abolitionists believe that state-sanctioned killing cannot be justified, even in the most sympathetic cases. What their examples show is that vengeance and punishment do not have to be our society’s response to even the most heinous acts of violence.
According to the Illinois Death Penalty Elimination Act, over 5,000 Illinoisans are currently facing life sentences, or de-facto life sentences, of up to 40 years. Parole Illinois. Similar to their predecessors on death row they will face an in-house death sentence. Advocates of abolishing the death penalty are calling for abolition of harsh sentencing and death by incarceration (life with no parole) more frequently.
Renaldo HUDSON, the education director for Illinois Prison Project, is a visual artist whose work will also be displayed at an upcoming exhibition at the University of Chicago, sums it up best with his words: “Society loses its moral grounds when we stoop to the actions of the most broken people to punish those who hurt people. The state decided that I was not redeemable. But I’m living proof that hurt people not only hurt people — we can heal.”