In July, the Trump administration ordered the execution of Daniel Lewis Lee. It was the first time a federal prisoner had been put to death since 2003. As of this writing, there have been nine more executions of federal prisoners in the last months of 2020, some of them within twenty-four hours of each other. Three more people are scheduled to die in the first weeks of January. If all goes as scheduled, President Trump will have presided over more executions than any president in more than a century.
In December 2019, then-Attorney General William Barr’s announcement that federal executions would resume surprised no one. Barr has been a vocal advocate of capital punishment; in his view, it is not only a deterrent but a requirement of justice for “horrific crimes.” In his announcement of the resumption of executions, Barr said, “the justice department upholds the rule of law—and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”
For decades, federal executions had been rare. Before last summer, only three federal prisoners had been executed since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988. Most executions in the United States are carried out by state governments, but 2020 was the first year in which the federal government executed more prisoners than all the states combined. It is also rare for a president to proceed with executions during a lame-duck period; the last president to do so was Grover Cleveland.