Story and photos by Scott Langley
In a six month period, from July 14, 2020 to January 16, 2021, then-president Donald Trump, along with cohorts Attorney Generals Barr and Rosen, sought out to execute 13 prisoners on federal death row. And they were successful. With the U.S. Supreme Court’s blessing, all 13 prisoners were lethally injected and were killed in a federal prison execution chamber.
This number — 13 — accounts for a 20% clearing of the federal death row — an astonishing rate — bringing the prisoner population down from 62 to 49. At no other time in modern history has a single death row been exterminated at such a high rate, in such a short targeted campaign.
Even in 2017, when Arkansas, under massive public criticism, attempted to execute eight prisoners in a matter of 10 days, the state only managed to achieve four of them. And those four accounted for 11% of the state’s death row, which is half the percentage rate that the feds pulled off in 2020–21. While it was devastating at the time, little did we know that the Trump Administration, which had just come into power a few months before, would topple that horrifying rush to reduce a death row population.
And even in 2000, just as I was coming into the work to abolish the death penalty, my home state of Texas saw its peak of 40 executions in a one year period — which was less than 9% of Texas’s death row at the time.
So what happened in Trump’s final six months of office was an anomaly — and completely against the massive downward trend this country has been experiencing over the last two decades. (Even Texas, still the country’s number-one executing state, has been on a decline, executing 4% of its death row population in 2019.)
While there are many, many deep concerns about what the Trump Administration did to these 12 men and 1 woman, a major issue at the forefront of many people’s minds is that these all occurred during a global pandemic. For the most part, states suspended carrying out executions since the nationwide shut down began in March 2020. Missouri and Texas each carried out a single execution during the pandemic’s first year (so far at least — Texas has two scheduled in the coming months, and Alabama, one), having stayed all the others out of concern for Covid risk. Yet the feds sought out 13 dates, and was relentless to have them carried out at all costs — even as prisoners, attorneys, and execution team members fell ill to Covid. The pandemic did not spare the federal system, but the system, led by Trump and his legal squad, would not be deterred.
These aren’t “normal times”
Of course, what happened during those six months was more than a numbers game. I don’t mean to share a dry, statistical viewpoint on what happened. Real lives were taken. Human beings with stories, and faces, and families, and communities were killed at the hands of their captors, their government, their President. But I share this because it is also important to put what Trump did in context to truly understand how massive, rare and historical this effort was to kill so many prisoners in the name of justice and “correction.”
The killing spree was more than statistics for me. I was present in Terre Haute, Indiana where federal executions take place for six of the 13 executions (the first three, and the last three) as well in Washington, DC for an additional two. In “normal times” it would have been likely that I ‘d have been there for more, but because of the pandemic travel restrictions put in place by New York, where I live, it made it difficult to be in Indiana for much of the time. And in a way, I am thankful that I couldn’t travel to Indiana for all the execution dates. It is soul crushing, mind numbing and physically nauseating to stand outside of a prison, helplessly, while the government goes to great lengths to kill another human being. Not monsters. Human beings, full of life.
Being out in the open, bearing the sweltering sun of July and the freezing temperatures of January, is in itself uncomfortable. Standing for hours (sometimes as many as eight) waiting for courts to resolve last minute legal appeals long after the scheduled execution times have past, is a test of emotional and mental patience and physical endurance. Doing it alongside family of the prisoners, anxious media witnesses, and spiritual advisors who have watched prisoners die on the gurney, is heartbreaking.
And in “normal times”, those of us gathered could help each other cope with this collective trauma by sharing a hug, or a meal or a drink. But these are Covid times, and there would be none of that. Just a sense of solitude as we socially distanced behind our masks — making it incredibly hard to feel that sense of support and community that we all so desperately need during those long, uncomfortable and exhaustive execution vigils with our collective teary eyes and broken hearts. And really, when you think about it, that experience of solitude is a stark reminder of what life is like on death row — void of human contact, void of sharing that drink, void of so much of what we on the outside during “normal times” take for granted.
But it’s a pandemic, and we all have risked something to be there. A few days after the final execution, on Trump’s last day in office, the United States clocked its 400,000 Covid related death. I can’t say being in Terre Haute was more or less dangerous than being home in New York, but we all had a sense that it was a risk to be together outside the prison — having come from all over the country to stand vigil together, in the best way that we could.
A hard train to get moving
As with nearly all executions, there is hope that each one will not happen. Organized clemency campaigns, legal filings within various courts, public pressure, a change of heart by those in power — and so much more — can all stop an execution. And whether you are at home or outside the prison, you always hope and pray that a miracle happens.
I went to that first execution of the series on July 13, 2020, of Daniel Lee, with that same hope. But that hope was fragile. Lee had been a white supremacist, and in the climate of a renewed Black Lives Matter movement, the Trump Administration had been strategic to pick him as the first, because in the face of a national spree of white police officers killing Black men, who would argue for sparing a white supremacist right now? Additionally, Lee and the other two men scheduled to die that week were also all convicted of murdering children. And who would come to the defense of men like that?
But there was still a thread of hope. There always is. For Lee that hope was that the woman who was the mother and grandmother to two of the victims pleaded for the execution to not go forward. A Trump supporter herself, she said this was not something the victim’s family wanted — a position that held such great power because when Attorney General Barr originally announced that federal executions would resume, he stated, “We owe it to the victims of these horrific crimes, and to the families left behind, to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”
So if we owe it to the families left behind, and they don’t want it, then why are we doing this?
When Lee’s time of execution came and went without the lethal injection going forward, we clung to that hope.
And when the clock struck midnight, we heard from a high court that the execution was still stayed, and we assumed that Lee’s death warrant had expired. Even the prison sent the media witnesses home (at least one lived nearly an hour-and-a-half away). I myself was back at my hotel a few miles away to get some rest, because it was going to be a long week with two more scheduled in the following days. I crawled into bed, emotionally exhausted, yet hopeful that the other two would also be spared, because if the feds couldn’t get this one in motion, it was going to be hard to get the others going. A 17-year stall from federal executions is a hard train to get moving. And we all know that once a train gets moving, it’s very hard to stop it. So thank God that train seemed stuck on the tracks — for at least this one night, and hopefully the entire week.
I woke up the next morning — surprised that I slept passed 9 am. I immediately checked my phone. I couldn’t believe what I saw. Shortly after 2:00 am, the U.S. Supreme Court lifted the final stay that had been in place in an unsigned order (somehow doing this while Ginsburg was in the hospital). Around 4:00 am the media witnesses were called back to the prison, and at 8:07 am, while everyone else was asleep, the federal government executed Daniel Lee.
It literally felt like waking up to a nightmare — a panicked mind spin of not truly knowing if I was still asleep and dreaming this unfathomable sequence of events, or awake and facing the harsh cruelty of our government.
But it was real. And more of a nightmare than I had imagined. Ruth Friedman, attorney for Daniel Lee and Director of the Federal Capital Habeas Project, wrote in a statement afterwards: “Over the four hours it took for this reckless and relentless government to pursue these ends, Daniel Lewis Lee remained strapped to a gurney: a mere 31 minutes after a court of appeals lifted the last impediment to his execution at the federal government’s urging, while multiple motions remained pending, and without notice to counsel, he was executed. It is shameful that the government saw fit to carry out this execution during a pandemic. It is shameful that the government saw fit to carry out this execution when counsel for Danny Lee could not be present with him, and when the judges in his case and even the family of his victims urged against it. And it is beyond shameful that the government, in the end, carried out this execution in haste, in the middle of the night, while the country was sleeping. We hope that upon awakening, the country will be as outraged as we are.”
This rushed, blatant violation of not only U.S. law, but international human rights standards, set the tone for what was to come. The train had left the station. The Supreme Court has not going to help Lee, and they, nor another other deciding power, were not going to help the next 12. The machinery of death was put in motion, full steam ahead. And just like that, Wesley Purkey was put to death two days later, and Dustin Honken the day after that.
And that is when the federal government slowly started pulling the rug out from under us — adding in a Native American from his tribal land, Black men with racist juries, a woman with severe trauma, men with intellectual disabilities, people who never even killed anyone, and so forth.
Witnessing the unthinkable
I returned to Terre Haute six months later for the remaining three executions. In that time span, we saw the lives of Lezmond Mitchell, Keith Nelson, William LeCroy, Chris Vialva, Orlando Hall, Brandon Bernard and Alfred Bourgeois all taken in a methodical process, where in each case, hope was dashed.
All three of these final executions were remarkable in some way. The first in this last series (as they were almost always done in batches of 2 or 3, in order to make them more economical for the prison) was Lisa Montgomery — the lone woman on federal death row — who had a lifetime of experiencing severe sexual, physical and psychological abuse. Then there was Corey Johnson — a Black man with significant intellectual disability.
And finally, there was Dustin Higgs — who literally killed no one — a fact even the courts agreed on (his codefendant is the one who admittedly committed the murders and was sentenced to life in prison for that). Yet the feds scheduled to kill Higgs — a Black man who was an accomplice, but not a murderer — on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, while maintaining the position that people who encourage or direct a crime are just as culpable as those who directly participate in it (an irony not lost on the fact that at this exact same time, then-president Trump was denying that he bore any responsibility for the violent attacks on the U.S. Capitol weeks before).
And just as how these things often go, and as they did six months earlier with Daniel Lee, I left the prison after Montgomery’s time of execution came and went, with a stay in place, wanting to get to bed to rest up for the long week ahead. And once again, I awoke to the news that after midnight, the U.S. Supreme Court lifted the stay, the media witnesses were called back, and at 1:31 am, Montgomery was murdered by an execution team while the rest of the country slept.
Johnson’s execution the next day was a mere five and one-half hours delayed, with the government managing to put him to death just before the stroke of midnight. And inside the death chamber, family of the victims laughed and cheered through the process — a fact we learned when Johnson’s minister, who had just witnessed the execution, came out to the vigil and shared what had transpired, eyes glazed over as if he had just seen the unthinkable.
The following night, Higgs, who had amassed remarkable social media attention in the matter of only a month, garnering over 2 million signatures on various petitions, was pronounced dead at 1:23 am.
Six days is all we need
A few weeks prior to these last few executions, I spoke on the phone with Alexa Cave, Dustin Higgs’s sister. With a tone of desperation in her voice, she said “I am praying for six days. Six days is all we need.” She was referring to the fact that in six days after Higgs’s scheduled execution date, there would be a new administration running the country — and the federal prison system. Trump and his death-hungry Attorney General would be out, and Biden and his team, who had promised an end to federal executions, would be in charge.
Six days is all she needed to get to that safety zone that would begin at the swearing in of a new administration at noon on January 20th. With Higgs’s execution scheduled for 6:00 pm on the 15th, she actually needed less than five days. 114 hours to be exact. It is hard to wrap one’s head around that. If somehow attorneys could bog things down for 114 hours, a life could be spared.
It was that call for “six days” that led our execution vigil crew of about three dozen people to cross the street onto the prison property to first set up a makeshift memorial for the 13 prisoners and their 28 victims (whose names I list below), and then move into the main driveway leading into the prison in order to block the media witness vans from getting through. We wanted to be a part of delaying things, knowing that when we talk about 114 hours, every bit could help to save Higgs, and to spare devastation to his sister, his son, and all the other family members we had heard pleading for his life.
The reality of the action was that police responded to our presence by blocking traffic into the driveway themselves and rerouting the media van through a secondary entrance. At most, our mostly-symbolic action resulted in maybe a half hour delay. Not the 114 hours we needed. But it was the idea that, in the spirit of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s non-violent civil disobedience, we could work together to stand up against injustice, and take direct action that could have actual impact.
Martin Luther King, III wrote in the days leading up to these three executions, “Friday [the day of Higgs’s scheduled execution] would have been my father’s 92nd birthday. Nothing could dishonor his legacy more profoundly than if these executions go forward…The federal government should not be needlessly taking more Black lives, and to do so on my father’s birthday would be shameful. My father would be disheartened, but not surprised, by the racial disparities that permeate the federal death penalty system today.”
On that final night of Trump’s death row killing spree, as Higgs was being strapped to a federal gurney, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor wrote in her dissent: “Throughout this expedited spree of executions, this Court has consistently rejected inmates’ credible claims for relief. The Court has even intervened to lift stays of execution that lower courts put in place, thereby ensuring those prisoners’ challenges would never receive a meaningful airing. The Court made these weighty decisions in response to emergency applications, with little opportunity for proper briefing and consideration, often in just a few short days or even hours… Very few of these decisions offered any public explanation for their rationale. This is not justice. After waiting almost two decades to resume federal executions, the Government should have proceeded with some measure of restraint to ensure it did so lawfully. When it did not, this Court should have. It has not.”
It is my hope that while I stood in the federal prison driveway to the death house in the 12 o’clock midnight hour, while a light snow fell on me, it will be the last time I, or anyone else, has to do this. 17 years passed between Trump’s execution spree, and the trio of George W. Bush, Jr.’s federal executions before that, and it is possible that we may never see another one again, as there is hope in the Biden Administration that the federal death row will be abolished once and for all.
When I was leaving my hotel the final morning before the last federal execution, I overheard someone in the lobby say with resolve, “I guess tonight is the last federal execution.” Strangely, that was comforting to hear. Not because I felt in any way that Higgs’s execution that night would be just, moral or warranted. But because after 12 instances of having hope dashed, and family of prisoners crushed, we just all wanted this to be over. To know there was a light at the end of this dark tunnel. To believe that a future with any executions — federal or otherwise — could be around the bend, so that this nightmarish train ride may come to a halt forever.
Remembering the victims, here are those lives taken by the men and women convicted of, and executed for, federal murder: Lisa Rene, Todd Bagley, Stacie Bagley, Joann Lee Tiesler, Pamela Butler, Alyce Slim, Tiffany Lee, Greg Nicholson, Lori Duncan, Kandi Duncan, Amber Duncan, Terry DeGeus, Jennifer Long, William Frederick Mueller, Nancy Ann Mueller, Sarah Elizabeth Powell, Peyton Johnson, Louis Johnson, Bobby Long, Dorothy Armstrong, Anthony Carter, Linwood Chiles, Curtis Thorne, Tamika Black, Tanji Jackson, Mishann Chinn, JG Bourgeois, and Bobbie Jo Stinnett.
Scott Langley is an independent photojournalist based in New York. He has been documenting the death penalty for over 20 years through his Death Penalty Photography Project. He also is a human rights organizer with a number of national organizations, including Amnesty International USA, Journey of Hope…From Violence to Healing, and Death Penalty Action.
State execution and death row statistics: http://p2.smu.edu/rhalperi/
Federal death row and execution statistics: https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/state-and-federal-info/federal-death-penalty
Attorney General Barr’s press release — July 2020: https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/executions-scheduled-four-federal-inmates-convicted-murdering-children
Ruth Friedman’s statement on the Daniel Lee execution: https://www.fd.org/news/daniel-lee-attorney-statement-about-lees-execution-morning
Justice Sotomayor’s Dustin Higgs dissent: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/20pdf/20-927_i42k.pdf#page=5