CHAIR BASS, SECRETARY JOHNSON URGE AG BARR TO STOP FEDERAL EXECUTIONS

November 17, 2020
Press Release
Johnson: These would be the first executions by a lame duck president in a century

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Chair Karen Bass (D-CA) and CBC Secretary Hank Johnson (D-GA) sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr urging him to put an immediate stay in the upcoming scheduled federal executions of Orlando Hall (November 19), Lisa Montgomery (December 8), and Brandon Bernard (December 10).

“Spikes in COVID-19 not only endanger the public, they decrease the accessibility of essential services. The ability to effectively see a client, schedule a hearing, or argue a case decreases as our hospitals fill and our leaders are afflicted. To preserve the sanctity of all Americans’ constitutional rights, it is imperative that we maintain a climate where men and women who have been sentenced to death have every available legal recourse in the days before their execution. The only way to ensure this is to stay these executions,” members wrote.

To read the full letter, click HERE or read below.

Here’s what the experts saying:

Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project

“Proceeding with Orlando Hall’s execution this week — as the nation, the state of Indiana, and Vigo County all battle unprecedented surges in COVID-19 cases — is indefensible and dangerous.  Federal executions require hundreds of people, many of whom travel across the country by plane, to gather in close contact within the Terre Haute prison complex.  The Bureau of Prisons’ own records show that this summer’s executions contributed to spikes in COVID-19 cases within the Terre Haute prison. They reveal that the Bureau of Prisons was not prepared to address or minimize the risk of massive spread of COVID-19 caused by carrying out the executions. The BOP failed to ensure that staff wore masks, failed to promptly isolate individuals who were sick with COVID-19 within the prison, and failed to conduct contact tracing to prevent exposed individuals from passing the illness on to others. The wholly predictable and reprehensible result of these failings was hundreds of COVID-19 infections in people incarcerated within the Terre Haute prison, as well as a demonstrable spike in infections in the surrounding community.

“The stakes are even higher today. As Attorney General Barr plans to execute Orlando Hall on November 19, 2020, Governor Holcomb has imposed new restrictions prohibiting events of 50 or more people in places like Vigo County, where Terre Haute is located, because of the rampant spread of Covid-19 that’s been documented there. Two lawyers for Lisa Montgomery, one of the people on death row with a pending execution date, contracted COVID-19 after visiting Mrs. Montgomery in the federal women’s prison. Asking spiritual advisors, family members of the victims and defendant, attorneys, journalists, and BOP staff to travel to federal prison with a documented COVID-19 outbreak burdens them with the unfair and unjustifiable choice between protecting their health and their obligations to loved ones or their jobs. This cruel and senseless risk will have consequences far beyond just those who attend and participate in the executions: The public health impact of increased COVID-19 spread extends to everyone incarcerated in the prison, all the staff who work there, the broader Vigo County community, and in the communities where the travelers originate. There is simply no reason these executions should proceed during this pandemic.”

Ruth Friedman, Director, Federal Capital Habeas Project    

“Orlando Cordia Hall is scheduled to die in the federal death chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana on November 19, two days away.  Should the U.S. government carry out his execution, Mr. Hall will be the eighth prisoner executed by federal authorities this year – a number greater than all the executions in the rest of the country combined. While nearly all of the states with capital punishment have halted executions due to the spread of COVID-19, the federal government has singularly pushed forward despite the pandemic.

“The federal death penalty suffers from the same deep-rooted flaws that have been evident in the states now for years.  The federal death penalty, as in the states, is concentrated in just a few regions. Texas produces more federal death sentences than any other state. It and two other states (Missouri and Virginia) together account for nearly half of the prisoners on a death row that covers 50 states and several territories.  Either all the worst crimes in our country occur in those three states, or there is some problematic reason for that disproportionate use of our system’s ultimate sanction.”   

Vincent M. Southerland: Executive Director, Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at NYU School of Law

“Racial inequality casts a long, pernicious shadow over America’s criminal legal system. At no point is that fact clearer than when it comes to the administration of the death penalty. Orlando Hall’s case is a quintessential, tragic example of the myriad ways racism irredeemably corrupts the system and undermines justice. Black people were unlawfully excluded from jury service at his trial by the trial prosecutors. One of those prosecutors began his career in an office where such practices were policy and repeatedly engaged in racial discrimination in jury selection in capital cases, as detailed by the United States Supreme Court and a federal appeals court. Compounding that injustice, Mr. Hall’s trial, conviction, and death sentence were the product of a system that, at every step of the way, is steeped in racial inequality. In Texas federal cases, Black people, when compared to their non-Black counterparts, are six times more likely to have prosecutors request permission from the Department of Justice to seek the death penalty, almost eight times more likely to have that permission granted, and 16 times more likely to be sentenced to death.

“The racism that permeated Mr. Hall’s case offends our Constitution and our legal system as a whole. It is intolerable and proceeding with his execution under such circumstances is a grave injustice that diminishes us all.”

Chairwoman Bass and Secretary Johnson’s letter to AG Barr

November 17, 2020

The Honorable William Barr

Attorney General

U.S. Department of Justice

950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, D.C. 20530-001

Dear Attorney General Barr,

We write to urge an immediate stay in the upcoming scheduled federal executions of Orlando Hall (November 19), Lisa Montgomery (December 8), and Brandon Bernard (December 10). Our nation is weathering a pandemic that has brought it to its knees—one that is projected to worsen in the coming weeks. This will make any scheduled execution a tinderbox for further outbreaks and exacerbate concerns over the possibility of miscarriage of justice.

Spikes in COVID-19 not only endanger the public, they decrease the accessibility of essential services. The ability to effectively see a client, schedule a hearing, or argue a case decreases as our hospitals fill and our leaders are afflicted. To preserve the sanctity of all Americans’ constitutional rights, it is imperative that we maintain a climate where men and women who have been sentenced to death have every available legal recourse in the days before their execution. The only way to ensure this is to stay these executions.

Your agency’s persistence in carrying out these executions is an unnecessary health risk that cannot be overstated. Executions like that of Orlando Hall—scheduled for this Thursday—risk the health of thousands, including Bureau of Prison (“BOP”) employees, contractors, attorneys, medical personnel, spiritual advisers, and family members. They also often require interstate travel among those slated to attend, further exacerbating the spread of the virus.

On July 14, 16 and 17 of this year, Daniel Lewis Lee, Wesley Purkey and Dustin Honken, respectively, were executed at FCC Terre Haute, a facility in Indiana with known cases of COVID-19. In the weeks following these executions, the county where the prison is located experienced a surge of confirmed COVID-19 cases. Despite this, Lezmond Mitchell and Keith Nelson were executed on August 26 and 28, respectively, at the same facility, and then William LeCroy on September 22 and Christopher Vialva on September 24.[1] As of September 15, three inmates had died from COVID-19. These examples indicate a causal link between executions and COVID-19 surges; therefore, the upcoming scheduled executions must be stayed.

These COVID-19 infections associated with executions were predictable, foreseeable, and present an unnecessary risk to innocent life. Prison executions themselves carry with them the inherent risk of being the site of a super-spreader event, given the significant limitations surrounding social distancing. When combined with the hundreds of persons required to carry out an execution, the risks are even further amplified. Despite this, Department of Justice has chosen to continue carrying out these executions, further denying constitutional rights to prisoners while endangering the lives of those around them.

These unprecedented risks and challenges have caused direct exposure and illness to legal teams especially. Out of real concern for their health and safety, Daniel Lewis Lee’s attorneys had to miss his July 14 execution entirely and Dustin Honkin was denied his right to spiritual counsel at his September 17 execution as a result of the pandemic. Lisa Montgomery is scheduled to be executed on December 8 and is at risk of being without counsel at that time, as her attorneys recently contracted COVID-19 during their visits to her at Federal Medical Center in Carswell, Texas. Currently, the state of Texas has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the nation. Her lawyers are too sick to meet the deadline for her clemency petition set for this Sunday. The Department of Justice denied their request for an extension, despite their battle with this deadly virus.

Continuing to execute federal death row inmates during a time when nearly every state in the nation has postponed executions due to significant public health concerns stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic is reckless and immoral. Our agencies should be focused on protecting and saving American lives, not causing senseless and unnecessary risk to innocent persons charged with carrying out federal executions.

Hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens have lost loved ones to this deadly pandemic. By stopping these executions, you and your agency can prevent more unnecessary deaths. We reiterate our commitment to the suspension of all federal executions at this time, ask for you to prioritize federal employee lives and stay all pending federal executions, and request a response to this letter within 15 calendar days from its receipt.

Sincerely,                                               

Karen Bass, Chair, Congressional Black Caucus                                                                            Henry C. “Hank” Johnson, Jr., Secretary, Congressional Black Caucus

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[1] “New Data Connect the Federal Executions and a COVID-19 Outbreak in Indiana.” Capital Punishment Project at ACLU. September 22, 2020. https://www.aclu.org/news/capital-punishment/new-data-connect-the-federal-executions-and-a-covid-19-outbreak-in-indiana/

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