RSN Fundraising Banner
FB Share
Email This Page
add comment

Koeppel writes: "On December 10, Attorney General William Barr will put Brandon Bernard to death, the ninth person on his execution wish list."

Bill Barr. (photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Bill Barr. (photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Barr's Killing Spree

By Barbara Koeppel, Reader Supported News

07 December 20


n December 10, Attorney General William Barr will put Brandon Bernard to death, the ninth person on his execution wish list. Wasting no time, he will execute number 10, Alfred Bourgeois, the very next day. These two will be followed by Lisa Montgomery on January 12, Cory Johnson on January 14, and Dustin Higgs, one day later.

Barr gave the green light to re-start federal executions this past July, after a 17-year hiatus. And they really are his executions since he’s the ultimate decider: he gets to chose who and how many will die, and when. The only fixed aspect is where they’ll happen, since federal executions are carried out at the prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Barr had to squeeze in two of his executions in September – one was on the day before and the other on the day after he got an award from the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast event for his “Christ-like behavior.” All told, he will have killed 13 inmates before he packs his bags on January 20.

Must Barr execute these 13 based on some law? No. In fact, the U.S. has 54 other federal inmates on death row, some of whom have been there for nearly two decades and who have committed equally awful crimes.

“The race to kill so many in such a short time is unprecedented,” says Richard Dieter, the former head of the Death Penalty Information Center. “You have to go back over a hundred years to see anything similar – like when the federal government hanged 38 Dakota Tribe members in Minnesota on December 26, 1862.”

So the obvious question is “why?” The simple answer is “because he can,” says Robert Dunham, a lawyer and director of Death Penalty Information Center. And his decisions to execute are “consistent with his history.”

That history is revealing. Back in the 1960s, during his undergraduate days at Columbia University, those who knew him say he opposed the anti-Vietnam War movement and students who occupied the university’s buildings to protest the war and draft.

No coddler of criminals, Barr was a major player in the move to lengthen prison sentences. In 1992, when he was the attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, he wrote a report, “The Case for More Incarceration,” arguing that the U.S. needed to imprison even more people, although the country already had (and still has) the highest incarceration rate in the world.

In the introduction to his report, Barr wrote, “There is no better way to reduce crime than to identify, target, and incapacitate hardened criminals who commit staggering numbers of violent crimes whenever they are on the streets.” Barr also insisted that the country needed more prisons, since “revolving door justice resulting from inadequate prison and jail space breeds disrespect for the law. We cannot incapacitate these criminals unless we build sufficient space to house them.”

John Clark (now retired), who was the assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and warden of the super-max prison in Marion, Illinois, says Barr was also pivotal in the get-tough-on-crime movement. In the late 1980s, federal laws eliminated the longstanding practice of allowing inmates to be released before their sentences were completed – based on their “good behavior.” Before then, in many states, inmates with long sentences (say 30 years or more ) were eligible for parole after serving just a third of their time (although not those sentenced to life without parole).

Early parole was especially common for prisoners who were 18 to 25 years old and guilty of minor crimes. Clark says that “under a youth rehabilitation act, they were eligible for parole within the first few months of their sentences: They’d meet the parole board and get a tentative release date, based on their behavior and involvement in self-help programs.”

This changed when Barr joined the Department of Justice. According to Clark, “Barr hosted a summit on crime, bringing representatives from all the states together, to convince them to overhaul their sentencing laws, eliminate early parole, and ensure inmates were incarcerated longer. As bait, he proposed tying Department of Justice grants to the states that adopted the federal model. By the end of the Bush administration, the plan became law: now, inmates had to complete 85 percent of their sentences. “The most they could get off their time was 15 percent,” he said.

Robert Dunham says the current wave of federal executions is “consistent with Barr’s history of merciless punishment. The fact that the 13 defendants are all being executed during the transition period is done out of spite and exposes Barr’s and Donald Trump’s personalities. They know Biden opposes the death penalty, so if they’re interested in killing as many people as possible, they’ll do as many as they think they can get away with. Thus, the rush.”

Dunham adds, “This administration is interested in gratuitous, harsh punishment for punishment’s sake. Nobody has to take children from their families at the border and lose track of where they are. Nobody has to fly in special forces to create a ring around the White House and use gas against peaceful demonstrators. But it’s what these people do.”

Dunham also says the executions reveal the racial biases in the criminal justice system. “The 13 he’s executing have one thing in common: Almost all their victims were White. And this shows the pattern, where White victims matter the most.” According to the Equal Justice Initiative, “Blacks are 22 times more likely to receive the death penalty for crimes whose victims are White, rather than Black.”

The executions also expose the intersection of race and politics. Dunham says Barr picked these 13 for political reasons. “Six of the first eight to die were White, chosen because this would forestall arguments about the racial disparity on death row – so death penalty opponents can’t claim it’s racially biased.” In fact, 6 of the 13 being executed are people of color. Moreover, 70 percent of incarcerated Americans are non-White, with Black men nearly six times more likely to be imprisoned than White men.

That still leaves the question about why these particular 13? The sole woman (whose story is one of constant childhood sexual abuse and incest, over many years) is severely mentally ill, and two are intellectually disabled – both categories that federal law says are not to be executed (in 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v Virginia that it is unconstitutional to execute those with mental retardation). Two others to be executed didn’t actually do the murders for which they were sentenced.

Barr and his boss are certain that executions serve as deterrents. But Robert Hood (now retired), who was the warden at the federal super-max penitentiary in Colorado from 2002 to 2005 and worked in the prison system for 45 years (in Texas and New Jersey facilities), disagrees. “The bottom line is that the death penalty isn’t a deterrent. I don’t know any inmate who says if there’s a death penalty, I wouldn’t have committed murder. And I’ve spoken to thousands.”

Statistics also dash the deterrent argument: More murders are committed in states that have the death penalty than in those that don’t. Yet neither Barr nor Trump is interested. Nor are they impressed that the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and the National Bar Association passed resolutions to exempt the severely mentally ill from the death penalty; or that 22 states have banned executions and 34 have not carried out executions in the last 10 years.

One aspect often overlooked is the horrific effect the killings have on prison staff. In a 2019 Washington Post opinion piece, Allen Ault, former chief of the National Institute of Corrections and commissioner of Georgia, Mississippi, and Colorado departments of corrections, wrote that the execution teams are so “severely traumatized” that they suffer from addiction, insomnia, and can’t keep jobs or maintain their marriages.

Ault says the impact is similar to that “suffered by battlefield veterans” – with one major difference: “In my military experience, the enemy was an anonymous armed combatant threatening my life. In the death chamber, the staff know the prisoner is defenseless and poses no threat to them.” He adds that the guilt, shame, and mental torment they feel “extends to other staff who interact daily with death row prisoners, often forming bonds over many years, witnessing their changed mind-sets and profound remorse.

Although the number of Americans who support the death penalty has dropped in recent years, 61 percent of Whites still support it, while less than half (46 percent) of people of color do. In a time of severe political schisms, it is reasonable to conclude that Barr and Trump know well that the executions will play perfectly with the President’s base.

Clark is convinced Barr “has a passion for executions.” Given the current killing spree, it seems he got it right.

Barbara Koeppel is a Washington DC-based investigative reporter who covers social, economic, military, political, foreign policy and whistleblower issues.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News. your social media marketing partner
Email This Page


THE NEW STREAMLINED RSN LOGIN PROCESS: Register once, then login and you are ready to comment. All you need is a Username and a Password of your choosing and you are free to comment whenever you like! Welcome to the Reader Supported News community.