This article contains mentions of sexual assault, torture and death.
In October 2007, Lisa Montgomery became the third woman sentenced to death for the murder of Bobbie Jo Stinnet and the forced removal of Stinnet’s unborn child. On Jan. 13, Montgomery was executed by the Trump administration. After a nearly two-decade hiatus, the federal government began executing individuals in July. Within the last six months, 13 people have been executed — three times as many people than in the past 60 years. The resurgence of capital punishment is alarming and warrants significant reconsideration.
Montogomery’s case was unusual and complicated. She was the first woman to be executed in the United States since 1953, and her childhood, plagued with years of torture at the hands of caregivers, led to brain damage and untreated mental illness. In the months before her execution, Montgomery could only function with “a complex cocktail of psychotropic medications to maintain contact with reality.” According to Montgomery’s lawyers, the government refused to “bear some culpability for her crime given its abject failure…to protect her from severe child abuse and sexual violence.”
The federal executions of Montgomery and so many others in recent months should be a wake-up call to all Americans — the death penalty must be outlawed to prevent future administrations from ever sinking to Trump’s level. Capital punishment is immoral and racist, and it must end once and for all.
Public approval of the death penalty has steadily decreased over the past 50 years, both in the U.S. and worldwide. The death penalty is currently outlawed in 22 states and 106 countries, and yet it still remains legal for the federal government. In executing its own citizens, the U.S. is a geopolitical pariah and subverts the will of its own people.
As with many facets of the U.S. justice system, the administration of the death penalty is racially asymmetrical. More defendants who are convicted of killing white victims are executed than those convicted of killing victims of color. Black defendants are disproportionately sentenced to death row; Black Americans make up 13.4% of the U.S. population but 42% of death row inmates. Six of the 13 inmates executed under Trump were Black. Ending the death penalty means ending its racist influence on our criminal justice system.
Frequently, defendants have to choose between spending the rest of their lives in prison or risking death for crimes they didn’t even commit. Prosecutors have sole authority over the decision to pursue the death penalty in murder trials. As a result, they use capital punishment as a bargaining tool to resolve cases without going to trial, which often forces defendants to take wildly unfavorable plea bargains.
The most substantial argument in favor of the death penalty is that it gives the victim’s family closure and vindication to move on from the tragedy. But revenge is less of a panacea than a band-aid. In fact, research suggests it consistently interferes with family members’ long-term healing. Others see the death penalty as a way to deter more violence. But countries that have banned the death penalty in recent years have experienced declines in murder and crime rates. In the U.S., too, states that have abolished the death penalty have not seen statistically significant increases in crime.
Lisa Montgomery’s execution, complicated and criticized, lays bare the moral bankruptcy of capital punishment. The death penalty is a violent action that lacks moral justification and understanding of mental illness. The U.S. justice system completely misunderstood how violence and trauma affect the brain and behavior in Montgomery’s case, and it must be stopped from ever doing so again.
In the past, elected officials who oppose the death penalty have contented themselves with simply choosing not to use it. But the Trump administration’s flurry of executions after a 17-year hiatus shows that we cannot trust future generations to stay away. It’s time to legislate an end to capital punishment in the U.S.
By calling your representative, learning about the executed and having difficult conversations about it with those close to you, you can help make that happen. All of us must hold the death penalty accountable for what it is: a cruel punishment devoid of empathy for human life.
The above editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel’s Editorial Board. The Editorial Board is composed of Sahar Al-Gazzali, Brammhi Balarajan, Viviana Barreto, Rachel Broun, Jake Busch, Sara Khan, Sophia Ling, Martin Li, Demetrios Mammas, Meredith McKelvey, Sara Perez, Ben Thomas, Leah Woldai, Lynnea Zhang and Yun Zhu.