The Lame-Duck Federal Executions

By Olivia Merrick

In a modern world that so heavily emphasizes a push for progressivism in politics, Donald Trump’s time as a lame-duck president, the time a president serves between the end of a presidential election and Inauguration Day, successfully managed to turn back the clock further than should have been possible. For the first time since 1889, Donald Trump has ordered the federal execution of five people on death row, Brandon Bernard, Alfred Bourgeois, Lisa Montgomery, Corey Johnson, and Dustin John Higgs, during his lame duck period. He has also set a new record for the most federal executions in a single year since 1896, with an abysmal thirteen people being killed at the hands of his administration.

One of the men executed was 40 year old Brandon Bernard, who was arrested in 1999, at the age of eighteen, and placed on death row for his participation in the murders, and consequential coverups, of Stacie and Todd Bagley. Bernard was charged with federal execution, even though he was not responsible for shooting either of the Bagleys. Christopher Viavala, the man who shot the Bagley’s, held a gun to Bernard’s head and told him to light the car on fire to cover up the crime. Although autopsies showed that Stacie Bagley had soot in her airway, meaning that she was breathing when the car was lit on fire, she was clinically brain dead after being shot, meaning that she would not have lived even if Bernard had never lit the car on fire. 

During his time on federal death row, Bernard dedicated himself to helping others. He educated teens and young adults in the jail, and worked to convince them that a life of crime was not worth it. He led a crocheting club in the jail to pass the time he spent there and learned to play the guitar. In addition, Bernard spoke to his children as often as he could. He never got to hug them before his execution.

Five members of the jury, as well as the judge, requested Bernard’s execution be stopped. Their pleas, as well as thousands of Americans, including celebrities like Kim Kardashian, fell on deaf ears. Bernard was executed by lethal injection on December 10, 2020: National Human Rights Day.

Over a month later, Dustin John Higgs was sentenced to a similar fate. Higgs, a 48 year old man, was sentenced to death on October 11, 2000, for being the master mind of the kidnapping and murder of three women: Tamika Black, Tanji Jackson, and Mishann Chinn. But Higgs did not commit the crimes he was accused of.

The man who was actually responsible for the crime, Willis Haynes, signed an affidavit confirming that Higgs was not involved with the crime and was only a witness. Yet, Higgs remained on death row, despite all attempts to receive clemency.

During his time on death row, Higgs released a collection of statements regarding his thoughts about his impending execution, called the Reflective Thoughts from a Cell. Higgs referred to all who called and fought on his behalf as his “Angel Warriors” and expressed sorrow, as well as shared some of his favorite memories, about Brandon Bernard following Bernard’s execution. Higgs urged for people to keep fighting for all Black lives to matter and expressed gratitude for everyone who understood and realized that he has been innocent all along.

Dustin John Higgs was executed by lethal injection in the early morning hours of January 16, despite receiving over a million signatures on petitions to save his life. At the time of his execution, Higgs had tested positive for COVID-19.

These are just two of five people whose lives were cut unjustifiably short by the Trump administration during the period between which Trump lost the election and Biden was inaugurated. There is zero justification for Trump’s actions, yet his choice to restart federal executions were not covered on television nor by most media outlets, until it was too late.

But it is not too late to save the lives of many more people who sit on death row. Joe Biden has said that he is willing to try and eliminate the death penalty, a massive step in the direction of a humane country. It is important to not get overly caught up in the murders of anyone who has been executed, and instead, to continue to fight for the abolishment of capital punishment.

Brandon Bernard and Dustin John Higgs are just two out of 1,529 people who have been executed in this country since 1970. If hearing their stories does not convince you of how inhumane capital punishment is, these statistics just might. 1 in 20 people on death row are exonerated after their execution. It costs 1.2 million dollars more to put someone on death row than into regular prison. 1 in 4 people executed suffer from severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia. And as of 2014, 42% of death row inmates were black, a staggeringly disproportionate number. 

Four out of the five people executed by Trump during his lame duck period were black men. Two had IQs under 75, which qualified them to be counted as individuals with severe mental disabilities, and according to the 2002 Supreme Court case Atkins v. Virginia, made their executions unconstitutional. 

In a time in which Donald Trump was inciting violence in the Capitol and spreading baseless conspiracies about the 2020 election, five people were counting down the days they had left until his administration executed them. He refused to step in to stop a single execution, despite his claims that he loves all people. Although these executions may not have been covered as much as every other horrible thing Trump did during his presidency, it is important to remember that this cowardly man cost five people their lives unjustifiably during his lame-duck period.