The conflicting accounts of federal executions that have taken place in the last few months of Donald Trump’s presidency have prompted calls for an investigation into whether the executioners deliberately misled the courts.
Thirteen death row inmates were executed in seven months after the Trump administration resumed federal executions last July.
According to the Associated Press, the executioners compared lethal injection deaths to falling asleep – according to sworn testimony, they called the gurneys “beds” and called the last breaths “snoring.”
The “sanitized” accounts of the executions at the US Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, differed radically from the reports provided by AP and other eyewitnesses, which described how inmates’ stomachs “rolled, shook and shook” when the pentobarbital injections were taking effect. , according to AP.
The executioners’ accounts were used by the federal government in court repositories as proof that the executions went off without a hitch.
Now there are calls for an investigation into the Bureau of Prisons, asking if the executioners censored their accounts to ensure the executions took place before the inauguration of President Joe Biden, who opposes the sentence of death.
Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told Newsweek that “neutral eyewitness reports differ markedly from the disinfected version of events at the Bureau of Prisons.
“This is in line with the generally untruthful descriptions of events that the Prisons Bureau and the Justice Department have offered throughout the execution frenzy,” he added.
“The new administration should investigate the conduct of BOP officials regarding the executions, correct the record so that the public receives truthful information about what really happened and hold federal officials accountable who engaged in the conduct. inappropriate during executions. “
Abraham Bonowitz, director of Death Penalty Action, said the inconsistencies did not surprise him.
“BOP and [Department of Justice] made every effort to keep these executions going, so of course they told the courts what they thought they could get things done, ”he said.
“They changed all kinds of practices that would normally have blocked the process. When Daniel Lee’s execution warrant expired at midnight on July 14, they just gave him a new execution date of “immediately” and never even bothered his lawyers. Lee’s attorney learned he was executed from a tweet. So I don’t think anyone is surprised about this. “
Bonowitz added: “We think the whole experience of Trump’s execution frenzy should be known and understood, but I’m not sure it’s worth spending time on whether it will hinder the abolition of the death penalty.”
In an interview with the PA in December, William Barr, then Trump’s attorney general, defended federal executions.
“I think the way to stop the death penalty is to repeal the death penalty,” Barr said. “But if you ask the jurors to impose it and the jurors impose it, then it should be done.”
Another question raised is whether detainees suffered when they were put to death – a matter of contention throughout the executions.
Lawyers for Keith Nelson, an inmate executed in August, argued that an autopsy had revealed that Wesley Purkey had experienced “excruciating pain and suffering” during his execution in July.
Purkey suffered from severe pulmonary edema, in which a person’s lungs are filled with fluid and feel like they are drowning or suffocating, according to court documents.
Dale Baich, one of Nelson’s attorneys, told Newsweek that the government had “cut legal corners” in its rush to move forward with executions.
He said a court granted Nelson a stay the day before his scheduled execution because the government had failed to comply with the legal obligation to obtain an order for the pentobarbital it intended to ‘use.
Baich said the executioners’ sworn accounts were “another example of the government’s violation of the law in its efforts to enforce the law.”
Demonstrators protest federal executions outside the US Department of Justice in Washington, DC on December 10, 2020. Nicholas Kamm / AFP via Getty Images
Megan McCracken, a lawyer with the Death Penalty Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, said the disparity between what eyewitnesses saw and what the Bureau of Prisons reported “reminds us that the lack of transparency is endemic to all aspects of capital punishment. “
“This directly involves concerns about the constitutionality of the federal government’s enforcement procedures,” said McCracken, who specializes in challenging lethal injection as a method.
She added that these inconsistencies were relevant to legal claims that the procedure violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
“Autopsy reports from executions across the country tell us that lethal injection procedures trigger a condition called acute pulmonary edema, in which the lungs fill with fluid,” McCracken said.
“Eyewitness accounts of some of the federal executions have described prisoners breathlessly and their abdomens twitching. These movements are consistent with the fact that prisoners consciously experience flash pulmonary edema, which is undoubtedly very painful.
Witnesses to the media “serve as the eyes and ears for society,” McCracken said.
“Without their reporting, the general public would have no objective information about what is going on behind prison walls. Experience shows us that journalists tend to provide clear and understandable accounts of what is going on in the prison. executions, ”she added.
“These descriptions are in stark contrast to the official descriptions provided by BOP employees, who describe the 13 executions as smooth and trouble-free. It goes without saying that these BOP accounts contradict eyewitnesses to the same executions.”
The Bureau of Prisons and the White House have been contacted for comment.
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