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With Exception Of Federal Government, Death Penalties Reach Historic Low In U.S.


Executions and new death sentences reached historic lows in 2020 with one exception. Executions by the federal government are up, says death penalty expert Robert Dunham.

ROBERT DUNHAM: Donald Trump is responsible for more executions in a five-month period than we've seen in more than a century and a quarter.

CORNISH: NPR's Carrie Johnson has been following the issue. She's here now to talk more about it. Welcome back to the show, Carrie.


CORNISH: Now, this follows the news that the Justice Department had relaunched capital punishment this year, right? And it was the first time since 2003. Tell us about that gap and the decision behind this year.

JOHNSON: Yes. Former Attorney General Bill Barr and his deputy, Jeff Rosen, said they were carrying out the will of judges and juries. Rosen wrote an op-ed piece this past summer. He said the issue was pretty straightforward. They were giving victims' families a measure of justice and upholding the rule of law.

Audie, in all of 2020, there were 17 executions, 10 of those by the federal government. States tapped the brakes on capital punishment because of the pandemic, but the U.S. Justice Department just kept going. And those executions brought scores of people to federal death row in Indiana to provide security or to serve as witnesses. The ACLU says there are now big coronavirus outbreaks inside the prison in Indiana, which has spread to the surrounding community there.

CORNISH: The vast majority of crime and punishment happens in the states, not the federal government. So who are the people who are on federal death row now?

JOHNSON: As of this moment, there are now 52 people on federal death row. And these are people who in some way violated federal law - engaging in murder on federal land, like a national park, or people who took part in a carjacking or a kidnapping where a victim later died. Contrast that with more than 2,500 people on death row in states all over the country. The Death Penalty Information Center says this year Colorado joined 21 other states to repeal its death penalty statute. And Robert Dunham points out that in Los Angeles County in California, voters just elected a progressive prosecutor who says he's not going to seek the death penalty there anymore at all.

CORNISH: A long-running criticism of capital punishment is the history of racial disparities in the U.S. How has that played out in the conversation this year?

JOHNSON: There are some studies that say the single biggest factor in a death sentence is the race of the victim and that Black men are sentenced more harshly for killing white people. Donna Murch is a history professor at Rutgers University. She says she looks at capital punishment through a long lens. And Murch told me the first few federal prisoners singled out for a lethal injection this year under Trump were white, but now the majority is Black men. Here's more of what she had to say.

DONNA MURCH: The state-sanctioned right to kill is important. But in a country like the United States built on African slavery and settler colonialism, this killing has a deeply racial symbolic to it. And that's how I understand what's happening under Trump right now.

CORNISH: I want to look ahead to 2021. There are three federal executions planned before the inauguration of the new president. How likely is it that they'll actually happen?

JOHNSON: There's some uncertainty about that right now. A judge has delayed the execution of Lisa Montgomery. She's the only woman on federal death row. That happened after her lawyers became ill from COVID-19. But the Justice Department is appealing and wants to proceed with her execution. And there are two other men facing execution before the inauguration January 20. Their names are Dustin Higgs and Cory Johnson. Both of them have tested positive for the coronavirus, and their lawyers have asked the Justice Department to stop those executions in January. But so far, the Justice Department has not agreed to any delay, so they may still go forward in the month ahead.

CORNISH: Following this story, NPR's Carrie Johnson.

Thanks so much.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.