Trump pushing through dozens of last minute policy changes – including use of firing squads

Five more federal executions are scheduled in the weeks before Joe Biden enters the White House

Alex Woodward
New York
Wednesday 25 November 2020 19:30 GMT
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Donald Trump has sought fast-track authorisation for several administration-wide policy changes before he leaves the White House in January, including the use of firing squads and electrocutions in federal executions, according to a report from ProPublica.

The Department of Justice entered a proposed rule change into the federal register in August. It cleared a White House review earlier this month, and the president could authorise the policy before he leaves office.

Federal executions are typically carried about by lethal injection, unless a judge orders a person to death by other means.

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According to the proposed rule change, the administration claims that “death by firing squad and death by electrocution do not violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment”.

The proposal argues: “In recent US Supreme Court litigation involving Eighth Amendment challenges to execution by lethal injection, nitrogen hypoxia and firing squad have been identified as potential alternative methods of execution, including by prisoners themselves, that might – or even must– be used instead of lethal injection, in particular because those methods allegedly carry a lesser risk of pain."

It’s unlikely that the rule could be put into practise – president-elect Joe Biden does not support the death penalty and has signalled that he could seek to eliminate capital punishment for felony convictions and suspend federal executions, which Attorney General William Barr aggressively pursued after he was sworn in last year.

Federal executions resumed for the first time in 17 years in July, following a divided Supreme Court ruling that paved the way for their return. Daniel Lee was killed in Indiana following a conviction for the murder of a family of three in Arkansas in 1996. The Associated Press reporter present for his killing said his last words were "you’re killing an innocent man."

Orlando Cordia Hall was executed on 19 November. In the remaining weeks of the Trump administration, the federal government will kill five more people – Brandon Bernard,  Alfred Bourgeois, Dustin Higgins, Corey Johnson and Lisa Montgomery, who will be the first female federal inmate to be executed in decades.

ProPublica reports that the president has sought to finalise 36 major rule chances in the coming weeks, similar to the 35 to 40 changes from under the four previous administrations – so-called “midnight regulations” in the lame-duck period after Election Day and before the incoming president’s inauguration.

In 2017, Republican lawmakers eliminated several rule changes under Barack Obama using the Congressional Review Act, which Democrats may not be able to invoke if the GOP maintains control of the Senate. 

This is pending the outcome of two crucial runoff elections in Georgia that could determine whether Democrats win a majority in both chambers, with a Democrat in the executive office.

Mr Trump’s rush to finalise those rule changes would otherwise enshrine conservative policy proposals to ensure almost-certain roadblocks for a Biden administration.

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