Honor King’s legacy by ending death penalty
In 1957, my father, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was asked whether God approves of the death penalty for certain crimes. He responded, “I do not think that God approves the death penalty for any crime.” He explained that “capital punishment is against the better judgment of modern criminology and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God.”
My father also recognized “the severity and inequality” of the death penalty. He spoke out against the disproportionate execution of young Black men, often barely older than children at the time of their crimes, whose punishments were surely influenced by their skin color.
Decades later, President Donald Trump and his Justice Department, in their unprecedented barrage of executions, have disregarded all of the principles of humanity, decency and justice that my father preached. After a 17-year hiatus of federal executions, the Trump administration carried out a shocking 11 executions in the past seven months and scheduled two more for the final days of Trump’s time in office. It is worth noting that this bloodbath exceeded the executions of all states combined in 2020.
Lest anyone confuse these executions with the pursuit of justice, we should recall that those executed included a Black man convicted by an all-white jury, two young Black men who were barely legal adults at the time of their crimes and a Black man whose claim of intellectual disability went unexamined. And that’s not to mention the prisoners whose claims of government misconduct, incompetence to be executed, and other serious problems were brushed aside in the government’s haste to kill them. The administration carried out executions over the vehement opposition of victims’ family members and jurors, and in one case over the objection of the Navajo Nation based on its tribal sovereignty.
It also executed Lisa Montgomery, a severely mentally ill woman convicted in the strangling of a pregnant woman despite Montgomery’s history of suffering unspeakable torture and trauma throughout her life.
To cap off its killing spree, the Trump administration had planned two more executions: On Thursday, it executed another young Black man, Cory Johnson, convicted of multiple gang-related murders whose intellectual disability should preclude his execution. And on Friday, it executed Dustin Higgs, another young Black man convicted for his involvement in the murder of three women, though he didn’t personally kill anyone. Last week, a U.S. district judge issued a stay of execution for both men because they contracted the coronavirus. On Thursday, a federal appeals court vacated a stay of execution for both cases, meaning only the Supreme Court could have intervened to stop the executions from taking place.
Friday would have been my father’s 92nd birthday. Nothing could dishonor his legacy more profoundly.
Over the past year, we have lost too many Black lives to police violence and a pandemic mismanaged by this administration. The federal government should not be needlessly taking more Black lives.
My father would be disheartened, but not surprised, by the racial disparities that permeate the federal death penalty system today. The government might have tried to obscure that inequity by selecting white men for its first several executions, but the facts are unavoidable. Well more than 50 percent of the 51 people on federal death row today are people of color, including 22 Black men. Some of those Black men were convicted by all-white juries.
In fact, in several cases, the federal government’s decision to prosecute a case instead of leaving it to state authorities had the effect of “bleaching” the jury pool — drawing jurors from a large federal judicial district instead of from the more racially diverse city in which the crime occurred.
On Jan. 6, we saw just how far Trump will go in his disdain for the rule of law. The Justice Department must stop using the power of the state to execute people. Perhaps now more than ever, we need our leaders to heed my father’s teaching that “returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”
Let us move toward love, not hate. The government should not carry out any further executions.