By Jessie Frank, Program Manager
Last Sunday, I joined activists from around the country in Terre Haute, IN, to stand against the federal executions that were slated to take place there. The push to end the modern use of capital punishment in this country has almost wholly occurred on the state level, and those who oppose executions have taken action mostly by pressuring governors, legislators, and prosecutors to stop the practice. But that changed this summer, when the Trump administration announced its plan to resume the federal death penalty by executing five people this December and January.
The federal government has not executed anyone since 2003, and although 62 people currently sit on federal death row, the federal government has only executed three individuals since capital punishment was reinstated in 1988. The Trump administration’s announcement is particularly discomforting given recent indications that capital punishment is losing its popularity. This year saw the second lowest numbers of executions since 1991, and a recent Gallup poll reported that for the first time ever, most Americans support life without parole over the death penalty.
Many of us working to end the death penalty held onto hope that the courts would not allow executions to proceed, that there would be some technicality that would prohibit restarting the federal death penalty, at least for now. But with the unpredictability of the courts over the past several years, it was hard to be certain that the “death is different” convention would persuade courts to take challenges to this new protocol seriously.
Those attuned to the realities of capital punishment in this country are all too familiar with uncertainty and unreliability. Family members of two men who were set to be executed—Rodney Reed (TX, still on death row) and Kevin Keith (OH, LWOP)—explained in Terre Haute that not knowing whether their loved one’s life would be spared was, and is, excruciating. For them, reckoning with a set execution date involved preparing for the reality of death on one hand while keeping hope alive on the other.
Luckily, less than three weeks before the first federal execution was scheduled, a federal judge blocked all five of the scheduled executions because, she reasoned, the administration’s plan to create a single implementation procedure for all federal executions was not in line with existing law.
What lies ahead for federal executions still remains largely unknown. Combined with federal executions being a new terrain that the movement has not collectively navigated for some time, these factors make it imperative that the anti-death penalty movement to find unity and cohesion.
Gathering in Terre Haute to reaffirm our opposition to the death penalty felt important and sustaining because being present with other activists created a much needed sense of community among those of us working to end capital punishment. Since each death penalty case has its own nuances and each state has its own cast of characters and laws, building a broad coalition of anti-death penalty activists feels like a challenge that we must overcome to effect meaningful change.
There are so many wonderful organizations working to end the death penalty, whether their approach is legal, legislative, or spiritual. But I think the threat of federal executions has emphasized the movement’s need for concerted action and communication among and within states.
The Trump administration’s announcement should remind us that our individual cases, counties, and states are part of a broader framework. If uncertainty is the only thing we know for sure in this work, we must find strength in our relationships with each other to continue pushing—together—for an end to capital punishment.