Brittney Bringuez | “Well, the goal for them is to kill him one day.”

By Brittney Bringuez

The seventeen state and federal executions that took place in 2020 and Abolition Democracy 8/13’s readings confirm two things. First, the death penalty is more barbaric and atrocious than any adjective could describe and must be abolished. Second, the United States, time and again, maintains a severe disregard for human life and an affinity for perpetuating human rights violations. It is more than clear that the recent bloodlust we have witnessed is due in large part to the Trump administration; however, the (in)justice systems in our country have long been deeply-rooted in white supremacy and chronic racism, meticulously designed to promote and bolster oppression, suffering, and death. There is a myriad of reasons— be it moral/ethical or legal— to abolish the death penalty.

Liliana Segura, award-winning investigative journalist, further confirms the inhumanity of the death penalty in her two recent pieces in The Intercept. In “The Death Penalty’s Other Victims,” Segura details the cases of both Orlando Hall and Brandon Bernard, both executed by the Federal government in 2020.[1] Both men, Black, convicted of crimes and sentenced to death over twenty years ago, were two more victims of the Trump administration, which chose to resume federal executions after a seventeen-year hiatus. Orlando Hall and Brandon Bernard were both deeply loved by their families but as Segura notes, “In the official narrative of capital punishment, after all, the label of murder victim’s family does not apply to people whose loved one is killed by the state.”[2] The crime-victims’ families are afforded the opportunity to present a statement in the media room after an execution but the state-sanctioned murder-victims’ families are not.

After the execution of Brandon Bernard, convicted and sentenced alongside Christopher Vialva for the deaths of Stacey and Todd Bagley, Bagley presented prepared remarks. Thanking the Trump administration (for executing Brandon Bernard), she said “Without this process, my family and I would not have the closure we need to move on in life. Please remember that the lives of family and friends were shattered, and we all have grieved for 21 years waiting for justice to finally be served.”[3] She continued, “The apology and the remorse that was shown to the family and the fact that they regretted their acts at that time helped very much to heal my heart. I can truly say I forgive them.”[4] What is justice and how is it served? We have been so deeply socialized into believing that long-term imprisonment or death by the States are not only appropriate consequences for crimes, but that the delivery of such punishment actively results in closure or a safer, more just society. On the contrary, a statement from Pearl René, the sister of Orlando Hall’s victim, demonstrated at least some empathy. She said, “Today marks the end of a very long and painful chapter in our lives. The execution of Orlando Hall will never stop the suffering we continue to endure. Please pray for our family as well as his.”

In another Intercept piece, Segura elucidates the harrowing case of Doyle Lee Ham, represented by Professor Harcourt, and the torture he experienced in his botched attempted execution.[5] Doyle Hamm, already ladened with numerous painful health conditions, was made to endure a failed execution attempt for over two hours. Professor Harcourt, who at the time was regularly posting updates on Hamm’s case on a website, explained how they “inserted needles multiple times on his left and right legs and ankles, each time forcing the needles into his lower extremities.”[6] They turned Hamm on his stomach, slapping the back of his legs, but could not get a vein. “With peripheral access unavailable, other IV execution personnel next attempted central venous access through Hamm’s right groin. It was painful and bloody. Hamm prayed and hoped they would succeed. When he was finally removed from the gurney, he collapsed.”[7] The torture of Hamm followed the failed execution attempt of sixty-nine-year-old Alva Campbell. Fortunately, Campbell’s execution was called off after just 25 minutes and he did not experience pain for the excruciating long period of time Hamm did. There is an abundance of data that explicitly indicates that the procedural elements of an execution can cause pain, yet this data has not minimized the government’s goal of executing more and more individuals.

Rachel Louise Snyder, in “Punch After Punch, Rape After Rape, a Murderer Was Made” details the case of Lisa Montgomery, who was executed just last week.[8] Prior to Montgomery’s execution, her post-conviction lawyers, Kelley Henry, Amy Harwell, and Lisa Nouri, sent a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights claiming that Ms. Montgomery’s trial “fell far short of minimum standards of fairness” and thus violated international law, and that the United States government itself bears some culpability for her crime given its abject failure, throughout her life, to protect her from severe child abuse and sexual violence.” Montgomery experienced a lifetime of debilitating sexual and emotional abuse by her parents and others, which resulted in her having “bipolar disorder, temporal lobe epilepsy, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociative disorder, psychosis, traumatic brain injury and most likely fetal alcohol syndrome.”[9]

Her all-male defense team failed to properly explain the decades of abuse she endured, “presumably for fear it would make her look even worse — a common mistake by lawyers in cases involving domestic violence, a miscalculation that feeds into a persistent stereotype about what a victim should look and act like.”[10] Montgomery was largely abused because of her gender and her legal team similarly failed to adequately protect her because of her gender. Snyder explains, “Her rapes, her teenage marriage, the multiple pregnancies with an abusive partner — Ms. Montgomery endured a lifetime of abuse because she was a woman. She was trafficked and raped because she was a girl. And the severe cognitive impairment she suffers today is a direct result of those crimes.”[11] Furthermore, she explains how child protective services, the education system, mental health services, domestic violence advocacy, and law enforcement all failed in protecting Montgomery, and subsequently she was murdered by the State.

Orlando Hall, Brandon Bernard, Lisa Montgomery, just a few of those executed in the past year, were victims of white supremacy and an unjust system. Though abolitionists have long called for the eradication of the death penalty, it appears as though we are moving closer to that goal with the new administration. Senator Dick Durbin, of Illinois, the incoming chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Representative Ayanna Pressley, of Massachusetts are in the process of unveiling legislation that would end federal capital punishment.[12] Senator Durbin has explained, “One of the longest-standing criticisms of capital punishment is the racial disparities in the United States. Some studies have shown that defendants convicted of killing white victims are sentenced more harshly than those who have killed Black victims.” He continued, “If we truly believe that all lives matter, and Black lives matter, and brown lives matter and the lives of poor people matter, it’s time for us to make sure that our system of justice reflects that”[13]

While many are skeptical as to whether or not our government actually understand the history and extent to which racial and social injustices exist in our country, strides are being made to at least terminate the process of capital punishment. President Biden is the first sitting president to oppose the death penalty.  Biden has said he wants to work with Congress to pass a law to eliminate capital punishment at the federal level and to “incentivize” states to follow that example.[14] Through DNA and other data, it has been proven that many people who have been sentenced to death were actually ‘innocent.’ In fact, one-hundred seventy-three people in the last few years have been exonerated on death row. Brandon Bernard did not shoot and subsequently kill Stacey and Todd Bagley and much of the outrage around his execution specifically was formulated around his “innocence.” Regardless of innocence, however, death by the State as a form of punishment should never be imposed on an individual.

Notes

[1] Lilian Segura. “THE DEATH PENALTY’S OTHER VICTIMS: In the shadow of Trump’s execution spree, the families of the condemned share a particular trauma that few can understand.” The Intercept. 2020.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Lilian Segura. “The Death Penalty’s Other Victims: In the shadow of Trump’s execution spree, the families of the condemned share a particular trauma that few can understand.” The Intercept. 2020.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Lilian Segura. “Another Failed Execution: The Torture Of Doyle Lee Hamm: Just months after Ohio failed to kill 69-year-old Alva Campbell, Alabama tried for two and a half hours to execute Hamm, a man with terminal cancer.” The Intercept. 2018.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.,

[8] Rachel Louise Snyder. “Punch After Punch, Rape After Rape, a Murderer Was Made

The execution of Lisa Montgomery would be an injustice on top of an injustice.” The New York Times. 2020.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] NPR. “Democrats Unveil Legislation To Abolish The Federal Death Penalty.”2021.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

Fonda Shen

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *